Ep 2: Who are you beyond your profession? (Ft Amy Tong)

Ep 2: Who are you beyond your profession? (Ft Amy Tong)

Amy 0:00
Throughout my career journey and this could be very ingrained in our Asian culture, right? You only say yes, and you say yes to everything. But I realised that it’s not sustainable.

Cheryl 0:15
Did you know that one in three Singaporeans work at least 10 hours a day? I’m definitely guilty of that. You spend most of your waking hours working, I invite you to reflect on this question. Who are you beyond the work that you do? Hello, I’m Cheryl, your co-hosts for today, and you’re listening to the Handful Of Leaves podcast. Handful. Of Leaves is a boutique Buddhist Publication, featuring stories by Asian writers on everyday topics, such as relationships, mental health, work, finance, and the long list goes on. Life is already hard as it is, so we hope you can take away some insights that will help you navigate the complexities of life and the happier and more fulfilling lives. Today we have a very special guest on board sister Amy and my co host Kai Xin. In the episode today, we discuss how can we humanise corporate life, when to create and when to stay, as well as exploring the three P plus P framework to achieve corporate success. There are many, many more gems in this episode. So stay tuned to the end, where sister Amy will share how a simple accounting concept can transform your happiness and joy.

So maybe we can introduce our guests for today, Sister Amy, with quite a cheeky starter question, which is could you introduce yourself? Who are you beyond your titles, your achievements and your responsibility?

Amy 1:59
I often introduce myself as a joy lamp. I always believe about having the joy from our hearts and sharing it with others. There has always been a motto that I’ve been carrying around, and also empowers me in doing what I do.

Cheryl 2:18
Oh, I really like that. So it is like Amy the Joy Lamp.

Amy 2:21
Yes, not the Aladdin lamp just in case you all come to me for three wishes.

Kai Xin 2:25
Why do you call yourself a joy lamp ? How did this term come about?

Amy 2:29
It actually came about in one of my coaching sessions. I had a coach at work. And she asked a very similar question to what Cheryl just did. And at that point, the word joy just naturally came upon me. But I realized that just joy for myself is not, you know, meaningful enough. That’s where I coupled it with joy lamp so that there’s something that I can bring around, not just to shine upon myself, but also to others

Cheryl 3:01
What do you mean like joy is not meaningful on its own? .

So for myself, I think if I’m just happy on my own, but I can’t be of value to people around me, I think that may not be as meaningful. So hence, I wanted to share it.

Kai Xin 3:20
I see you doing a lot of volunteer work, and you’re probably an over achiever high-flyer in your organization as well. and you also do mentoring. How do you achieve so much? Was it because you want to spread joy? Or is there something else?

Amy 3:37
You know, when you mentioned the word overachiever, that was something that I think since I was young, even before coming to the corporate world, or being introduced to voluntary work, I tend to have this expectation on myself that I always need to do my very best.

Now that I think about this, it is a bit silly. So like back in school, I felt like I had the responsibility that whenever I go for examinations that I have to score first. Otherwise, I’m a disappointment. I have no idea where that came from. Because to be fair, my parents didn’t impose that on me. That seems to be something that I self-imposed upon myself.

And as I grew up, I start to realize that that expectation is not very sustainable. And that’s where I start to find ways to like ‘Oh, you know, what, other ways can I do my very best besides just trying to accumulate medals and put on badges and things like that.’ That’s when I start to get involved in volunteering. And volunteering was also my balancing factor that actually is balancing me out from what I do at work, or what do I need to achieve in the corporate side of things.That is the typical KPI of how much revenue you’re going to grow this year, how much costs you will cut this year etc., which are very binary and objective.

So, that sometimes you may seem as you know, overachieving because every year is that you know, the extra 10%, or that extra 15%. A lot of people have this misconception, or maybe some people will use it as their mantra to say that, ‘oh, for me to be successful in the corporate world, I need to always be at the first place, you know, I need to be the one that is driving and leading.’ It’s a lot about me, myself and I.

While I can accumulate the joy myself, it is not something that I define as meaningful if I cannot share it out. The volunteering part actually allows me to like, ‘okay, since I managed to be meaningful in this space, can I actually bring other people along in the same spectrum? Or try to, you know, mentor others so that they don’t fall into the same pothole’. That’s my version of getting back. And by that, it actually balanced me out from being the overachiever that is only focusing and concentrating on myself. So that balancing made me feel a lot more human to make sure that while we keep to some of the corporate achievements, that we don’t lose connection with people to not lose connection that ultimately we are all human, and also how we can help each other along the way. And I think that’s the part that sharing with others actually taper down my over achiever mindset.

Kai Xin 6:36
I’m curious, because you mentioned about climbing the corporate ladder in your LinkedIn profile. I think Cheryl was the one who pointed out that less than two years, you will get a promotion. So was that deliberate? And then who did you bring along? And how do you balance the tangibles and the intangibles — KPI and the human side of things?

Amy 6:57
I have to say, I’ve been very fortunate to have managers who have believed in me. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that, you know, that was deliberate. Like, I didn’t say that, okay, I need to get to this level by within a year, within two years. A lot of it, were having someone else who believe in me, giving me the opportunity and the platform. And there was a mentor that shared this with me, which I’ve used this now to guide other mentees along, especially when everyone has their career aspirations to get to the next level.

Amy 7:37
He shared with me that they are three Ps that, help you or guide you on your next corporate promotion.

One is the platform, so your role needs to be operating at the next level. For example, let’s say you want to get from an analyst to a associate, then the role that you’re performing needs to be a associate platform to allow you to showcase your potential.

Secondly, is obviously performance. This is where, you know, you really need to do what is required as an associate to demonstrate that you are worthy of that title.

And last, but not least, actually is my favourite, which is P for People. It’s about how people actually know you, what people know you for? And how do you then get the power of your network to support you to the next journey.

For once, he was one of the mentors that helped me demystify the whole corporate promotion piece and made it quite logical that you know, each of the component is something that, you know, we can influence and work towards. To me, that was very enriching. And there has always been now the framework that I’ve used, even for my mentees who want to get to the next level. And I’ve been quite happy to see that with that framework in mind, a number of my mentees have actually got to the next level as well. So that’s how I bring them along the journey.

Cheryl 9:01
Yeah, and I think like, we should never underestimate the power of like the relationship currency, which is like, who you know, and what do people think about or how do people perceive you in terms of your competence, your reputation because I think to a certain extent, your performance can only return you a limited amount of reward, but then it’s the people that, you know, that helps you to get to the next level as well.

Kai Xin 9:30
Totally. There’s also a part where you mentioned it’s not deliberate, but having that three Ps in mind does sound quite deliberate to me. I mean you have to make an active effort right to be in the right place, and also connect with the right people and know what are the performance indicators to work on so that you’re offering value and creating value in the organisation. Then I think sometimes people might also feel I’m not so sure as a Buddhist whether I should chiong and strive so hard, then you kind of just wait for things to happen. It is like, okay, by luck and by chance, which I, personally, don’t believe that’s true. And then some people might also struggle with finding that sweet spot, right?

Have you ever struggled knowing how much you should strive in an organisation and how much to kind of say, okay, I think it’s enough?

Amy 10:18
Definitely. So I think at different juncture of my career, I would say, for example, at a much junior level, then it may seem a little bit more straightforward. But as you get to a much more senior position, then, there’s probably more complexity in the three Ps. But what I really like was, when I was at a mid career, one of my promotion gift was this book is called ‘What got you here will not get you there‘.

Amy 10:53
Again, while I emphasise on the framework, as a guideline, at every part of the career journey, the framework also will change slightly differently from a dynamic perspective. So that actually gives me a reminder to also manage my own expectations to say, ‘Oh, just because you use three Ps then cannot be every time you go to the next level is two years. Then, that’s a little bit, you know, deluded in that way.

So for me, I guess there is no right or wrong answer. And there are people who want to chiong. And in fact, there are people that have gotten promoted even faster than me. So again, it’s all relative. And also, there are some people who said that, ‘Hey, you know, what I don’t feel I want to go to next level because I see the amount of stress that comes with it’. And I’m actually very happy where I am. And I think as a society, we should also be not judgmental to those that say, ‘Hey, actually, I’m happy where I am, I don’t have to, you know, get to a senior level, I love what I do and then I go home, and I feel happy.’ And for those that, who wants to strive for the ambition, again, we also shouldn’t judge them to say that,’ Wow, why they always so competitive must always win, etc’. So I guess everyone is different and depends on what you want to achieve. You put in the effort.

And reason why I said I wasn’t deliberate was because sometimes it also depends on the condition. For example, there was one year I remember, I was part of a talent programme. And everyone had this mindset that oh, yeah, after this talent programme, right, most of the people will be promoted. And the reality is, that wasn’t the case. There are certain situation whereby even you had put in that effort, the conditions were just not right at that point in time. And on hindsight, I fully appreciated it. Because I was thinking if actually, I was promoted at that point in time, which is earlier, I wouldn’t actually be ready to take up bigger responsibilities. Sometimes go into the next level too quickly, may not necessarily be a good thing as well.

It’s a lot about learning. When is the right time, like you said, the sweet spot. But most of the time, you can’t get the answer before it’s always on hindsight like, ‘Oh, actually, it’s okay I think now I’m more ready’.

Cheryl 13:15
And I guess when you’re experiencing it you’re probably feeling very frustrated, like demotivated that you put in so much effort, but then you can’t, you didn’t get what you want. But then you see the values and the lessons of it when you look back many years later. I’m wondering, Kai Xin what are your thoughts with that question? Like know how much you should strive? Like the question that you asked Amy.

Kai Xin 13:36
I was actually thinking of adding one more P to that framework. Purpose because I think we can meet the right people have the right platform and to all these performance indicators, right. But for what, so I want to share a funny story. It’s about a cab driver, he told me the same exact thing as what’s the same you just mentioned, it was, I think, 1am or something like that. And I was on my way back home from the office. And then he was like, ‘ Oh, you work very high rank ah? ‘ Then he started telling me life lessons. You know, typically people who climb up the corporate ladder, they get paid a lot. It comes at a price. Because that’s where, you know, the stress comes in, and is it really worth it? And it got me thinking as well. So don’t strive for the sake of striving or because everyone else around is doing the same. Knowing when to let go also, and I think to take care of our own mental well-being that’s very important.

Typically, I will only realise at a tipping point. Like I’m burning out. Then I was like ‘Okay, I think I’m working too hard. I need to pull the brake’. Again, always on hindsight. I don’t have the right answer. But I think it’s true all this different experience that I’ve learned how to recalibrate.

Cheryl 14:49
I do have one more P to add also. It will be pivot, which is basically having the courage to pivot your life direction. So for example because I think for me, I’m just starting out in my career and a lot of it I benchmark based on what other people are doing. Are they earning more? Okay, I follow, you know, like they work OT I also follow. So a lot of times I get lost in the doing and striving, I don’t really know, what’s my purpose, and I don’t know where I’m heading to five years later. Like, I hope I won’t be in a place where I completely hate my life, I hate my job. I think having that courage to pause and to really ask yourself, what is important. What are your values, and then, you know, taking small steps to pivot towards the direction that you want, and then charge towards the better place, so to speak.

Kai Xin 15:39
Yeah, I think it’s so important to know when to quit. Because, you know, in society, sometimes the word quitting, it’s so tough. Yeah, it’s taboo. It’s like you’re giving up. But sometimes if you’re giving on the right thing, it’s gonna be so much better for your life.

Amy 15:55
I think that’s why Cheryl chosed a P instead of a Q. It is a better word than Quit but quite close. It has a more positive connotation to it.

What has worked out quite well for me, and it’s within my advice for those who have just started their career, is to really explore different roles. I say, explore different roles, at the end, say join different companies. Explore different roles, and jump different companies are very different. And why do I say that? Because at the beginning of my career, I had the opportunity to obviously be part of the Graduate Programme that allowed me to be mobile. I changed department every eight months. And I really enjoyed it. Because I get to see something new, I get to learn something new. And it didn’t become dull or boring, which could also sometimes be a reason of why we lost motivation at work. I continued on that trajectory. So which is why if you look at my career history is a little bit Rojak la. So I started out in finance. And then I did a little bit of strategy and change. And then I found love when I had the role to face a client, which is something I never imagined myself doing because I graduated with accountancy. So I thought, ‘Okay, for the rest of my life in dealing with numbers.’ And then I’m dealing with like an external client, and it kind of just hit a very sweet spot for me in terms of my personality. And I start to love, what I did in that space. I think it’s important as we find motivation in work, and especially for those that you know, have been in the same company, a lot of us would think that, I think it’s time to quit, maybe I should join another company.

I maybe the wrong person to give advice, because I’ve been at the same company for more than a decade. But what I did realise for people that keep jumping is they actually see the same problem in every organisation that they go. So, I am a big advocate of internal mobility just because you kind of have a sweet spot, you still have your network in the company to support you, but at the same time, explore different roles within the organisation. Then, find and hopefully find one that you know, really, really resonate with you and grow from there. And you will know it when you find it.

Cheryl 18:18
How do you know when you find it? Can you describe that feeling?

I think this is a little bit of an art than a science. Okay, why do I say that? So when I graduated, we accountancy I remember the advice that was given to me ‘Amy so after graduating, you should just go and work in an audit firm.’ And after three years, you’ll be very successful. That was what I thought because that time I just graduated, so I was like, ‘oh okay.’

Amy 18:43
Then, I start to realise what that actually mean? Because it’s like, they just left me hanging at the ‘spend three years and then you know, question mark, question mark.’ That is the more science approach about okay, a lot of people than that, and then it is a very binary trajectory. And you follow, like Cheryl, you say, okay, people do this I follow.

Then I start to realise it’s more of an art. And when I say it’s an art, it is something that only you will know. Because when I did the client role, which is completely different from any experience that I had. I didn’t learn about clients, I didn’t actually start working in the client space, but having the opportunity to go out and represent the bank and speak to a senior person in the client and have that communication. At the same time. I also learned from other senior leaders in the industry. I knew it that I love it is because it gives me an outside in view to the company. And I think that is super refreshing. And being someone who always enjoy something new and enjoy learning, I thought that was a great platform for me to you know, expand and it’s like infinite possibilities. So if you find something that you think ‘Wah, there’s so much I can do here, and I get very excited and I think there’s opportunity to grow.’ I think that’s where you found your sweet spot.

Cheryl 20:05
But could that be misleading? Because like, in every new job that you do, you can always feel that feeling right of like, you know, ‘Oh, there’s so much I can do in this space, and there’s so much opportunity to learn and grow.’ I feel like there’s something missing there that we still need to have to know whether that is really the right job?

Amy:
Yeah, so what you’re sharing is something new will always sound exciting at the beginning. This one is a little bit like the quality of happiness. Whenever something is new, right, the happiness will be there, but then he will be more momentarily or more short term. But for me, when I know that, it’s something long term that I want to do is because I feel that I really can do it for the next three to five years, not in the same exact form. But in a way that I really think that, you know, being in the client space is where I can, you know, do transformation I can do, I don’t know, relationship management, I can grow a team of client service, etc.

So if you notice, when I found that sweet spot, that’s where the rest of my other roles are kind of link to it, just because I found something that was meaningful for me to grow, and I personally resonate with. It’s more about when you find that new job, and you might enjoy it for a while, the question to ask yourself is, do you think you can do it for the next three to five years? If your answer is I’m not sure, then I think maybe continue to reflect on that. If you say no, then straight away, it’s like, okay, maybe this is not my cup of tea. But if you say yes, and you start to explore around it, there are actually a lot of opportunities that, you know, there may be something that you can do, and you’ll find yourself enjoy doing, and hopefully not get bored over time.

Cheryl:
So in summary, it’s like finding a job that warms the cockles of your heart for the next three to five years of your life.

Amy:
I may need to pay Jamus lim that if I use that.

Kai Xin 22:08
I’m wondering also whether it’s important to look at the worst-case scenario? Because I think sometimes we can look at a new role with very glittery eyes and say, Oh, this is something new, so exciting, but we don’t see the hardship that one has to go through. So if I can find myself saying, wow, it’s exciting to actually go through challenges, to solve problems or to not have an answer or to move out of my comfort level, then that might be my indication, which three to five years, I think I can stick in the same room regardless of highs and lows.

I think it goes back to really the courage again, not to move away and to because when you just change your job, you know, the last thing that you want to hear is that, okay, this is not the right job because then you have to go through the entire process of like, searching for something else, again, going through the interviews, which are not fun. I guess, listen to your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, then you should do something about it.

Amy 23:10
Or sometimes, it can also be even though just because you found something they warm the cockles of your heart doesn’t mean that every day is a smooth sailing day. Like what Kai Xin say, sometimes there will be, you know, challenges and difficult conversations.


I think a lot of times, it’s also about even if you’re in a role that like you said, let’s say your day fills with ‘No la this is not my cup of tea already la’ My advice would be really also stick through it for some time because there’s always something to learn in that. And, and I see this with leaders as well sometimes, you know, you can’t choose your bosses, for example. Then, that one you can’t just jump , I mean you can but what if you meet another similar person in another organisation.

So the mantra that I usually use is if I meet a really good inspiring leader, I learn from the person. If I meet a leader that maybe doesn’t resonate much with me and maybe then I can also learn what not to do when I’m a leader. And I think that applies as well. And we are in a role that maybe we are not on the high every day. But there’s always something to learn. And I realise sometimes when you’re in a very challenging role that is not resonating with you. It is also a very good practice about how you deal with your own aversion. Yeah, because otherwise we might then be jumping from one to another. It is a bit like Samsara, just in a work context.

But Cheryl you’re right. I mean, if then come to a point in time that you think that you know, you have invested enough time for me to make that decision and have the courage to pivot. I think that’s also the right thing to do, but just remember not to like react quite immediately because in any perfect sexy job, they’re always days like, ‘Oh my gosh, like, get me out of here kind.’

Cheryl 25:02
But I realise I think it’s important to caveat though that, okay, that is good. But it’s very important to take care of your mental health. If the environment is toxic that people are just backbiting, then ‘Straight out please.’

Yeah, and for me, right, sometimes when I speak to people, sometimes the role can be tough and not what you like. But if the people there are people that you can work with then it is still not that bad. The worst combination is, you know, that role is really not what you’d like, and then the environment is completely toxic. That could be completely unbearable. And then, obviously, that’s where the role and the environment are good, then that’s where you blossom.

Amy 25:44
I completely agree. For me, one of the reasons why I stayed where I am, for more than a decade, which a lot of my peers would kind of say, ‘Wah you are very silly, why are you so loyal to the same firm, and then you’re kind of young, you should be looking around and hop around.’ But I’ve been super grateful to have meet pretty amazing people. And I think the people piece that there’s like a trump card for me, that says a lot about the working environment and where to go and where to stay.

Kai Xin 26:20
Yeah, I think it’s really about finding that balance, right? Because I also do know that there are some practitioners, they will just take every moment as a learning moment. Then, they take it upon themselves. Even though the work culture is super toxic, but because they’re so compassionate, they say, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the company because everyone is struggling, and there’s something for me to learn.’ And they don’t think for themselves, which, I think, is quite unhealthy to the point like Cheryl said, right, if their mental health is being jeopardised, I think it’s really a sign that you should just pull the plug and go somewhere else. I think it’s important to have options, but at the same time to not point finger to say, oh, it’s somebody else’s fault, or it’s my fault. But to look at both sides.

Amy 27:01
When is the time to pull the plug. So just right before this podcast, I was reading this CNA article about mental well-being and burnout at work. And as much as we say, mental health is pretty invisible. But I strongly believe that when it comes to burn out and stress, actually, it comes out even on your physical side. So for example, simple things, like if you couldn’t sleep well, you know, every night, you dream about your colleagues or you know, you preplan while you are in your shower about your own business meetings gonna be difficult, etc. Or even things like you’re not eating well. It could be you suddenly just want to snack a lot, or you’re suddenly just like, I just don’t feel like eating, I’ve got no appetite because I’m very busy like this next PowerPoint is the most important thing to me, I think those are signs that we really need to have a look-out for.

Amy 28:05
And what’s most important is sometimes you don’t have to find a solution yourself. When you’re at those pivotal moments, I would say always speak to a friend because a friend or another party will lend you the perspective about and these are people that you know, you trust the most know you well, to know that, hey, I actually think that, you know, you’ve been looking pretty stressed. And you really need to take a chill pill for a while, and they really stem from the care for you. I think having someone that just keep a lookout for you at that point in time, and then maybe just discuss.

For example for me discussing with my hubby to know that ‘Hey, am I just being complainy?’ Because it’s my natural habit whenever I have this kind scenario, I would end up lamenting, or am I really at red zone whereby it’s really starting to impact me and my physical well-being signs are showing up. So, I think that’s where it will give us an indicator of when to pivot, not quit because I think pivoting with the right intention, actually will get us further in the journey, rather than you know, stopping the journey.

Kai Xin 29:20
Do you have any advice? Or like how do you personally take care of your own mental well being so that you don’t get to the stage of burnout?

Amy 29:28
I think I would answer this in two ways. One is the conventional burnout if you just think you have too much work, so you’re overwhelmed. That’s more quantity thing. The other is your burnout because you have constant self-doubt, or thinking that you’re not good enough. And you know, you’re the worst human being on Earth. It’s more of a quality thing.

So for me in terms of the quantity of work, I think this is where the whole planning and open discussion with your manager to make sure that at any point that you think it’s too much to just ask a very simple question to say that which one is the most important? Because then that gives you the permission to say that, ‘Oh, instead of doing 10 things, actually, it’s only three’ Then you already cut it by like one third. One of the thing that obviously, I’ve learned throughout my career journey, and this could be very ingrained in our Asian culture, right? You only say yes, and you say yes to everything. But I realised that it’s not sustainable. And Kai Xin and I talked about sustainability over the last two to three years. And that’s something that I’ve used as a reminder to anchor myself that, you know, I don’t have to be Wonder Woman or Superwoman to do everything. But when it comes to quantity to really plan and have those could be difficult conversations, to ask what is the most important, so that I think is the easier bit to do.

The harder bit to do is always with ourself. As y’all would have known, like, you know, the biggest critic we all have is not other people, is ourselves. We are our biggest critic, which is quite an irony. But that happens a lot. And I primarily found this more evident in female as well. And there are research that shows that when there is a job application, when a man see that they are 60%, fitting to the qualifications, they will apply. But for women, they need to see like the fitting 100%.

We are sometimes shortchanging ourselves and the doubt and perception may actually cause a lot more mental stress and burnout. What has been very useful for me, and I’m a huge proponent of that I have constant self doubt as well. And one of the teachers that I thought was really, really good at this is actually Venerable Thubten Chodron. In Thubten Chodron’s talk, she always said out loud how our mind thinks, how when you know, when we’re jealous, how does the mind speak, or when we are competitive, how does that speak. So, her teachings resonate with me since many years ago, mainly because of my nature that I’ve shared. And I was like ‘Yeah that’s actually how my mind thinks! But no one has spoken it out loud the first time like that.

And whenever I have those moments of frictions, thank goodness, there’s Google. I will typically Google Venerable Thubten Chodron for that particular topic, and usually, she just have a hit for me.

So, that’s how I tried to make sure that I have a reminder to make sure that both from a quantity of work perspective and a quality of what I think of myself, doesn’t cause unnecessary burnout until that I can’t actually pull it. And I am actually reading this book by Venerable Chodron right now. It’s called Awaken Every Day. And because sometimes I’m so busy, I can’t typically finish a Dharma book, if it’s a big read. But this is just a verse or a page every day. I read this every day. And sometimes miraculously, the teachings is what I need at that point in time. And that actually helps me a lot in you know, be it myself self-doubt or self-critic or when I’m trying to strive to be perfect to remind myself that I’m still human beings, still learning and growing. So that brings me back to earth, not in Mars anymore.

Cheryl 33:42
I thought it was very interesting that you mentioned the psychological aspect of burnout. Because I think every time we look at burnout, we’re always just thinking about, okay, peak period is common that everyone is burnt out, you know, after that have a break, go to Bali, etc. So many people struggle with I talked to colleagues and managers and mentors. They also mentioned the same thing, that feeling of imposter syndrome is pervasive, it doesn’t matter if you’re like an associate or senior manager, everyone feels that also the extent. It took me a good two years to be able to say like, ‘Okay, I kinda know what I’m doing here. I kind of feel like I deserve to get this place.’ A lot of my two years of like, comparing my colleagues who are more experienced, coming from a lot of different companies, and I’ll always be like, ‘Oh, my God, I, I just can’t do it.’ And it’s always taking my worst comparing with people’s best. And obviously, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t know, I feel like it’s very fun to do that to myself. I still don’t know why.

Some steps that I take them to kind of elevate that is always talk to people about their experiences, because I think when you are being able to be vulnerable, you realise that. Oh, the person that you think got this stuff together actually doesn’t actually feel anxious to actually feels like, you know, they don’t know what they’re doing. So when you have that kind of open conversation with people, you realise that, ‘Hey, we’re all just human beings that are trying our best doing our best and want to feel recognised and validated. ‘

And I think that, that changes the perspective also from one of like, beating yourself up to like, ‘Hey, how can we solve the solution? Is there something that I could learn from someone else? Can I upgrade my skill in a circumstance?’

Especially during 2020, it was super important to have a proper stop, like, stop working, carving out the space mentally and physically to really put a stop there. And I think exercise has been quite helpful for me because we just take my mind off things.

Kai Xin 35:48
Yeah. For a more practical level, I think it’s about blocking out time to not do anything because I don’t trust myself if I don’t do that because I will just get in the flow and I’ll work until 1am 2am. But if I carve out time and routine, then that’s really like non negotiable. Google Calendar, it’s my life saviour, I use it to organise my entire life. And based on last year, during COVID, so Vasa period that is the rains retreat that is a three month period, I took on this challenge, where I would have to dial in to the evening chanting session, every single day, except for for weekends because I want to spend time with my family. And surprisingly, even though that was like my peak period, but just doing nothing else, but dedicating my time for chanting for meditation for a good two and a half hours every single day, I actually feel revitalised.

And then I kind of wondered, in the past, I always think that I don’t even have time to sit for half an hour. Why do I have time to even block out two and a half hours and things just seem to get done? You know, it’s not like I’ve worked piling up, and I seem to be doing things a lot more efficiently. I think on hindsight, it’s really not so much about the quantity of time, but the energy that goes into it.

Maybe for listeners listening to this, just try, you know, one hour routine, don’t do anything, just rest, and see what happens. And it will be good to do it with a community so there’s accountability as well.

I’m wondering whether we can go back to the whole idea of working. What is your thought on this whole hustle culture?

Cheryl 37:33
For me, I hustle on things that I’m interested in. So if I’m interested, I will really put effort into it. Because I feel like there is a clear outcome such as mastering a skill or mastering something that I’m interested in, and then the progress become very enjoyable, because it’s progress that I get to define myself.

But let’s say it’s things that are not that interesting, then I think I struggle very much to do it. Then you know, I can be described as like, lazy or like, whatever because I just feel like my mental state is not aligned to it. And I don’t want to let you take a lot of will power for me to force myself to do it. So I think hustling works, if you are able to convince yourself that it’s something that’s worth doing.

A lot of this conversation, it seems to put like growth, career success as the base assumption, right? That is what you want to hustle for, and you should be hustling for. But I think we should also not discount that there are different things that people could hustle so far in their own way.

I was listening to the recording that you had with Brother Tan also. And I really love the example that he shared with Siddhartha was a super hustler before he became the Buddha. He had to go through all the most intense meditation teachings and try all the different ways. So that is considered hustling. Don’t think that there’s only one bar of what hustling should look like and do the one that I think you enjoy. At the same time. I think, as with everything, like balance is key.

I don’t really like the word hustle, because it does have the connotation of over exerting of effort. I feel that you need to be smart about things in the sense that put in the right efforts that give you your result, but not do everything the most difficult way to get the same results.

Kai Xin 39:33
Have to be strategic. Yeah, because I know sometimes people like, ‘Oh, the more number of hours OT, I can win a medal or badge.’ Sometimes we compete with people based on who sleeps the latest and who stays in office the longest. I’m not so sure that you guys have those colleagues or times before. I was guilty of that, ‘Wah I work until so late!’. And I feel proud of myself, you know. And I think it’s very blind like you mentioned. It wasn’t strategic at all.

Amy 39:40
I guess there’s no right or wrong, whether we hustle, should we not, a lot of it also driven by the character and personality. And most recently, I’ve also noticed that besides driven by character and personality, it was driven by social media. Social media in the sense that ‘Wah! Everyone is hustling, so I better hustle. If not, I’ll be the one who left out. And I think he was also aggravated with the whole FIRE mentality, which is Financial Independence Retire Early. And in I’ve seen a number of the younger generation now, getting very anxious and worried about, ‘Hey, I feel very FOMO no fear of missing out.’ I think we just need to be mindful in terms of why we hustle. I think a lot of people just follow without understanding why are they even doing in the first place.

I think I have two very interesting nuggets to share. So one was instead of FOMO, the recent term I learned was JOMO which is Joy Of Missing Out. Sometimes, if you are the one that actually don’t have to hustle so much, and then you get to really relax and do what you enjoy doing. That in itself brings you a lot of peace and contentment. Again, like what you said Kai Xin earlier, it’s a matter of choice, which choice do you actually enforced.

Secondly, I’ve also read an article this week, and there is actually another way to achieve FIRE. Alot of us think hustle is the only way to achieve FIRE. Actually, frugality also allows you to achieve FIRE, there’s always different ways to achieve the mathematic equation. It is a matter of which part do you exercise more, and whichever choice anyone chooses to, and we are all adults, I just feel that, you know, we shouldn’t judge, which is the right one or which is the wrong one. Everyone has their own choice.

But most importantly, coming back to mental health, no matter what choice you exercise, the most important thing at the end of the day, is you do not compare. And I think Cheryl said it before, comparison is the thief of joy. I think sometimes that kind of makes you even more lost, as you follow and you forgot, like, why am I doing this in the first place? And then why this person has a condo and Mercedes and I hassle so much, and I still don’t have a car. It is kind of endless. If we compare, and I think it’s important to ask ourselves why, and there are always different ways to achieve the same outcome.

Kai Xin 42:52
I would disagree about comparison, I feel like it depends on whether we are comparing from a place of sufficiency or a place of deficiency. Because I mean, if you don’t compare them, we don’t know how to improve, right. And also, it’s very hopeful because I can compare this year with last year. Where am I in terms of mental well-being? And then if I don’t do that comparison, I wouldn’t know whether I’m for better or for worse, and what are some of the action steps. So if I’m comparing from a place of sufficiency and to be inspired to improve, then I think it’s actually very wholesome. But it’s not like ‘Oh, there’s a sense of lack’ And you know, FOMO rather than JOMO, then I think that’s where a lot of problems can surface. So I really think it’s the intention. And I think the sense of ego and that self also.

Amy 43:40
So I remember at one of my university lecture shadows Zen story with me on this before, I think maybe it’s really hard, like you said, to not compare at all. But I think depending on what is the outcome of the comparison, and how does it make you feel is where we need to be mindful of.

So the Zen story was actually a story of two trees. And let’s say one is an apple tree, and the other one is an orange tree. And obviously, we know apple and orange tree, let’s say they breed differently at different point in time. But if we tend to compare them as the same tree and then say, ‘Oh, how come this tree has the fruits and then this tree haven’t had the fruits yet?’ I think that’s where it will cause more suffering. However, if you’re comparing in terms of ‘Am I a better person today, versus I was yesterday.’ I think that then also gives you more gratitude and peace versus always trying to define yourself worth outside of yourself.

But yeah, I think it’s quite inevitable that we will tend to compare, but it’s more about like you said, ‘What’s your intention of comparing? What’s the outcome of your comparison?’ Then generically speaking now with the bomb of social media, the comparison are a lot more the latter that you said, which I think is not healthy for a lot of people, and sometimes people may not even realise it. Because it’s just so ingrained as they comb through and scroll down and you know, and how they feel after. So then the whole awareness and the mindfulness may not be there for them to actually digest that whole comparison thing.

Kai Xin 45:30
One of our subscribers actually asked, How can Buddhism help one to overcome procrastination? And I think in society, procrastination has a very negative connotation. I procrastinate means I’m not doing anything, or like I’m delaying the things that I’m supposed to do. But do you think that there could be a connection between what you’ve just mentioned, Cheryl, which is, do you even find the motivation and the intention to do what you like? Have you procrastinated before? Because I think people have a very warped mentality, or over achiever don’t procrastinate at all. They have no downtime, which is completely not true. Yeah. Do you feel like people procrastinate, because they don’t find meaning and motivation in what they do? And is it wrong to procrastinate?

Cheryl 46:18
I don’t think it’s wrong to procrastinate. I think because if you dig abit deeper on why people procrastinate, I think guess one part is like the lack of motivation, it just doesn’t align with what they’re interested in. Things become very effortful. And as human beings, our brains are evolved to take the path of the least resistance. That’s how we evolve and survive until 2022. I think the second part is the emotional and psychological part of procrastination, of maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not feeling good enough. That’s why you know, you then just want to reject or resist the idea of getting started because you have that perhaps narrative in your mind that I won’t be able to finish this, or I won’t be able to do this well, so why bother?

I think the problem with procrastination is if we tie that to the person’s personality, then that becomes something that you can’t change. But if you tie it to a little bit more about the situation, then that is something you can change. So in the sense that if you have a huge project, how can you make it more doable by breaking it into smaller, smaller, like tasks, then it becomes psychologically more acceptable for you to feel motivated to want to get started.

So you know in 2020, I think everyone was talking about that whole KonMari thing, right? Where you feel joy and stuff like that. But then, so what happened now in 2022, the whole craze kind of faded away. And the reason for that was because the concept of KonMari, you need to take out everything in your cupboard, you need to take out your whole garage. So a lot of people stopped at that first step because the thought of just like clearing a whole house is crazy.

Then, Fumio Sasaki, which is a Japanese guy also that kind of works on this organising concept, came up with something that changed the whole thing. He was just like, just do one thing, just clear one thing, like just put a plate aside. And then do the second thing. Do the third thing, right, clear your forks and spoon next. And that was very appealing to everybody. Because everyone feels like, ‘Oh, I could do something, you know, I can achieve something’ And you build up their self confidence. And it leads you to do greater stuff. Slowly.

For me, I think we need to start to also understand why we procrastinate. Sometimes, if you observe enough times when you procrastinate, you might see a pattern in terms of what are the things that you typically procrastinate on. I can resonate what Cheryl just said, because sometimes you might be procrastinate, it could be a moral reason why ‘ Actually I don’t want to do this I don’t know how to tell the person no.’ And it could also be I’m fearful or I’m doubtful because I don’t know if I do this whether I will fail or not. I think there is a deeper question to ask, rather than just staying at the procrastination level, which is to say, Why am I procrastinating?

Do you know what’s the opposite of procrastination?

Cheryl:
Productivity?

Amy 49:21
That was very funny. I didn’t even know this what exists, but there’s something called precrastination.

Cheryl 49:26
What?!

Amy 49:28
Yeah, so procrastination sounds like we are delaying something. But it could be our affliction why we are dealing something, but there’s also precrastination, which is and sometimes I’m guilty of that is because I want to be so efficient. Do it fast, so I just make sure I do it, you know, and then just get it and then especially for overachievers, ‘Wah shiok ah I’m doing everything and finish’ So I think there are always both sides of the coin. Okay. Sometimes we precrastinate and sometimes we procrastinate. For all for those of us who precrastinate more, is to also come back to the why. Why are you doing this thing in the first place? What’s the meaning that you’re trying to bring, rather than just jumping to doing it? For those of us who are more prone to procrastination, then we also have to understand why are we feeling that this is not the right thing to do. Or when we are feeling a bit sluggish, and we don’t want to do that, at that point in time. I think asking why instead of just hanging at that emotion level and feel bad about it, change to a more action oriented outcome.

Cheryl 50:33
Sorry I have a question. I don’t really understand precrastination. Can you explain more?

Amy 50:39
So procrastination is you have something to do and then you kind of delay it. Precrastination is you know, you have something to do, and then you just do it quickly to just it get over the line.

Cheryl 50:49
It is the same as being productive isn’t it? You just get your stuff done, right?

Amy 50:56
But precrastination is more like, you just anyhow, just get it done.

Kai Xin 51:00
I think the difference is, when we precrastinate and get things done fast, it doesn’t matter whether the task is important or not, we just want to get things checked off our list. And you know, I’m not sure whether you’re guilty of this, but I am when I finish a task, and I do it very quickly. Then I check ‘My to do list I forget to put in’. Then I will put it so I can check the box. Even though I’ve done it already.

And productivity, I think it’s effective. Some people might have misunderstood productivity as being very outcome-driven. Like it depends on the number of output. But it’s actually not the case.

Tying back to Buddhism, also overcoming procrastination, or precrastination, it’s a lot about understanding our likings and disliking. Because it’s like, ‘Oh, this is uncomfortable, I’m afraid of failure. I don’t like it. So I deny it. Or I really like the feeling of affirmation or feeling that I’m achieving something that I do a lot.’ And it’s not very sustainable. So can we do something where there isn’t a very strong sense of stimulus, but we just do it with the flow and feel fulfilled?

I think it’s about understanding likes and dislikes, and how can we stop swinging from these two ends of the spectrum, and just do because we find it fulfilling?

Cheryl 53:18
I think we spend so much time at work, right we spend, although the official one is 40 hours, but obviously, most people spend more than 40 hours at work. And our work achievements are very much tied to our ego or our sense of self. Like if you don’t do well at a presentation, you can take it extremely personally that I suck as a human being. Are there any tips to dissociate that sense of self or ego with the work that you do?

Amy:
I think that is completely natural. And we shouldn’t go into self blame mode, simple maths that you just did. If I spent more than a quarter of my time of my day at work or even if I’m not at work if I’m thinking about work I will actually consider although HR wouldn’t think I’m working, but I’m still thinking. It’s natural, then we start to associate it with ourselves identity. And I think that’s when I think over COVID, with a lot of people that you know, have to lose their job because of the economy. I think that’s when it kind of struck like, ‘Oh, what is my self worth? What is my self value? etc.’

In fact, I did kind of play it back to myself. While it didn’t happen to me, and why grateful, I still have a job. I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, like one day, if that ever happened to me, would I completely lose my self worth?’ Coming back to the first point that we were discussing, which is why I’ve always wanted to make sure that I have the balancing factor outside of work because my self worth is not purely defined by work, while the workspace have given me the opportunity to help others and help myself, can I actually also do the same outside of work, which, obviously, I’ve proven that is possible.

Hence, I put a lot of the corporate concept into the Buddhist community, be it the mentoring programme, or, you know, International Women’s Day, what have you. I think it’s natural that we associate ourselves with that, but it’s also important to find the joy and meaning outside of work, so that you become a more holistic human being. And it’s not just one aspect of your life.

Kai Xin:
I actually find the way Cheryl you asked the question at the very beginning, it’s a very helpful way to dissociate ourselves from our work. I mean, I’m not so sure whether you realise typically, when you introduce yourselves to a new person, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m Kai Xin and I work as’ I mean, seldom people talk about hobbies, unless you are in an orientation. And it just goes to show how much intertwined our identity is with work. What if we could make it a habit to introduce ourselves with some thing more purposeful, like a broader term? Hi, I’m Amy, and I’m a joy lamp? Or people consider me as a joy lamp, then no matter where you go, that value and that personality and character would would shine and you would kind of still thrive wherever you are.

Amy:
I do a test right now. So Kai Xin, can you please introduce yourself?

Kai Xin:
Oh no! (laughs) Well, it’s so difficult. I mean, we still need the conventions. I will personally say, ‘Hi, I am figuring out life and perpetually curious. Life goal is to understand how the mind works. Cheryl, your turn.

Amy:
This is like an arrow.

Cheryl:
Hi, I’m Cheryl. And I think I’m too polarising to be fit into a description, because I just find myself a bundle of this, but that. Yeah, no answer. But that’s the answer.

Kai Xin:
So, homework is for all of us to crystallise, what that means.

Amy:
Yeah, and I think it’s also a very beautiful thing to say, that may change. I may tell you joy lamp now. And then 10 years down the road, you asked me, it could be something else, and it’s ever-changing, and it’s evolving, and that also showcase growth. But I think it’s a good reminder to just remind ourselves that we are more than just, you know, tying to work or certain labels or certain conventions.

Kai Xin 57:40
Great. So it’s been such an insightful conversation. I’m just wondering if we can end off with one action step that our listeners can take away, what would that be Sister Amy?

Amy
Since this is about overachieving and contentment. I think one action that I would encourage all the subscribers to do is just be very kind to yourself.

Kai Xin:
And why is that important? And how can they start to be kind? Where do they start?

Amy:
So I mentioned that I learned accountancy, although I’m not a practising accountant, one of the talkes that I was in yesterday resonated with me and kind of like touching my accountancy DNA again. Venerable Fa Xun was sharing with me that every night before we go to bed, remember to close our accounts properly. Meaning that you know end the day with you know, gratitude, no matter how hard the day has been. Whether you know, it’s been difficult working with people or you have failed difficult on yourself being the self critic or doubt. There’s always something to be grateful for, and to end the day on such positive account and looking at things more as a glass half-full rather than empty. I think it’s important. Sometimes I think we are being too hard on ourselves. And I think we need to be like the best friend to ourselves to start first if we want to make this joy a lot more sustainable. So I think be kind. And the way to be playing is really close your account every night on a positive grateful note.

Yeah, and thanks for sharing so much with us so openly as well. I think my biggest takeaway would be to pause and understand why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. And to be able to, in a way, acknowledge that this is a long term thing not like look at things in a very short-term lens and celebrate our progress and big and small achievements on the way.

Amy:
That is a very beautiful summary.

Kai Xin:
Thank you so much Sis Amy, for being with us.

Cheryl:
Thank you for listening all the way to the end of the episode, and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as we did. It will be really helpful if you click the subscribe button on Spotify, and YouTube and you know, do some social media magic, share, comment, tag a friend. We have exciting topics lined up, so that’s going to get juicy. You can get more information on our telegram group Handful of Leaves and you can join the discussion with the telegram community. Do share with us your main takeaway from this episode and I look forward to hearing from you.


Special thanks to Sopisa for helping with the transcript.

ABOUT AMY TONG:

Amy has 14+ years of local and international working experience in a foreign investment bank. She has a diverse career background across Finance, Relationship Management as well as Strategy & Change. She currently leads the regional team in APAC with key focus on institutional priority clients and driving digital transformation for the corporate bank.

Apart from her professional work, she is also a strong advocate for charitable causes, diversity and inclusion, youth development, and is a regular volunteer with Singapore Buddhist Mission. Find out more about her efforts in bringing the Buddhist Community together to plant seeds of joy, wisdom & compassion.

SBM Fellowship Circle
Network with young adults and working professionals from the Buddhist Community to discuss current challenges and share successes as we learn the Dhamma and practice together


#IWDNurture for International Women’s Day Month

Celebrate and express our gratitude to the amazing women that have nurtured and touched our lives


Buddhist Mentorship Programme

Empower Buddhists through mentoring, building the fellowship of kalyana mitras to support our spiritual development by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path (Season II:Class of 2022 application will open in June 2022)

RESOURCES & USEFUL LINKS

Book – Awaken Everyday by Venerable Thubten Chodron 

Book – What got you here won’t get you there by Marshall Goldsmith

The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

TLDR: Teacher burnout is a real risk. The mental health of teachers also has a significant impact on students. Besides relying on their peers and official support channels, teachers can practise meditation to promote greater mental wellness for themselves and their students.

The Missing Conversation

“What’s missing from the conversation in schools is the mental well-being of teachers.”

So goes a comment from a former secondary school teacher, as quoted in a CNA Insider post, which highlighted the challenges that teachers have faced. As netizens generally agreed, teachers have it tough. 

Struggling to cover content while keeping up with new policies and coping with safe management measures, answering multiple stakeholders like parents, colleagues, and supervisors. Teachers may find it all rather overwhelming. 

If a common refrain of critics is to ask who guards the guards, can we ask in turn how we can care more for the caregivers? 

How should we take better care of teachers’ mental health, especially from a Dhamma-based perspective?

Burnout and Brownout

The issue of mental wellness has preoccupied the nation’s collective imagination in recent months. Reports have noted that, in comparison to their peers globally, Singaporean workers experienced higher than average levels of burnout: around half felt exhausted, while almost 60% felt overworked. For professions as demanding as teaching, the risk of burnout seems particularly acute. 

Aside from ‘burnout’, more workplaces have observed increased incidence of ‘brownout’ — akin to the reduction in voltage which results in the dimming and flickering of lights — in the workplace environment. This would refer to the stage before the point of burnout, as a loss of interest in work and life, in general, threatens to slip into depression. 

I’m reminded of the five hindrances in Buddhism: perhaps experiences of burnout and brownout constitute a toxic mixture of states of torpor, intensified by restlessness, worry, and doubt.

Some have raised the deeper question about the role of teachers and the scope of their responsibilities. In a widely-shared video by RiceMedia, artist-musician and former teacher Chew Wei Shan recounts what it was like to be marking on weekends and juggling multiple obligations like managing a CCA, managing parents’ expectations, and so on. 

She movingly describes her experiences at school, which included dissuading a teenager from jumping off a roof at 2 AM, having chairs and scissors thrown at her, and male students cornering her while “eating [her] worksheet in [her] face”. 

At the same time, she observes how emotionally invested teachers can be in the lives of the hundreds of students they meet every year. 

As she reflects, it’s hard for teachers to avoid bringing back home worries about the students, or to prevent themselves from evaluating the little choices they make daily.

More than to ‘Just Teach’

As an NIE lecturer of mine once quipped, “If you want to just teach and only teach, you should be a full-time tutor.” 

To be a teacher, however, is far more than just to teach. 

It also means being a confidant, ready to step in when the need to counsel students arises, in addition to being an event planner, community organiser, safety officer, and a myriad of other roles. 

I’m reminded of the figure of Kuan Yin, the thousand-armed bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, whose numerous arms deliver aid to all suffering sentient beings, and who tirelessly offers blessings in the spirit of boundless compassion and wisdom. 

Perhaps teachers, who have dutifully coached and comforted students despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are akin to modern bodhisattvas, selflessly devoting their time and effort to the welfare of their young charges.

But unlike Kuan Yin, teachers generally don’t have infinite energy and knowledge. Many teachers have also gone out of their way to ensure that programmes and lessons can proceed uninterrupted. 

For instance, as described in a TODAY article, as mass assembly programmes had to be halted due to safe management measures, teachers had to equip themselves with new skills such as how to record or live-stream performances to be presented via video-conferencing tools for events like Racial Harmony Day. 

The work involved in preparing for such events, in addition to other preparatory work needed to create resources for home-based learning or other activities, may have taken a toll on teachers over the past two years.

No System is Perfect

In response to concerns about excessive workloads as a result of duties apart from teaching, the Ministry of Education has clarified that the appraisal of teachers is such that their contributions are given recognition in all aspects of work, taking into account their efforts in aiding students’ holistic growth. 

As for administrative duties, there has been significant progress made to minimise teachers’ workloads by incorporating technology like the Parents’ Gateway app, as well as the evaluation and furnishing of manpower support. Furthermore, the ministry has reminded schools to review their systems of management so that teachers’ responsibilities can be better managed. 

On the ground, much depends on individual schools, school leaders, and colleagues, but at least official clarifications signal purposeful angling of priorities and directions for future educational policies. 

In a world governed by Dukkha (dissatisfaction), no system is perfect, but teachers can still refine and shape their sphere of influence to promote greater awareness and understanding of the roles that they play, and the effects they have on others. 

Interdependence: Teachers & Students

As former nominated MP, Anthea Ong, was quoted to have observed, “A student who is not well affects the well-being of a teacher—and a teacher who is not well affects the students. These two things need to be looked at in totality.” 

This reminded me of the concept of interdependence, or interbeing, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. 

When we understand how all phenomena exist concerning one another, we develop an awareness of the welfare of one is contingent on the other. Teachers and students are inextricably interconnected.

Such interdependence also explains why teachers play such a critical role in modelling to students what mental health entails. Students mirror their teachers in many ways, and the effect of teacher modelling can hardly be underestimated.

If teachers are calm and steady, students naturally sense this and develop a similar composure. If teachers are anxious or worried, students also succumb more easily to such fearful states of mind. Students are extremely observant towards the emotional tenor of their teachers, and they can quickly spot any discrepancy between teachers’ words and feelings. 

Getting off my Treadmill of Suffering

All this is based on personal experience. I remember how, amid one particularly difficult period in school, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. All the work involved in teaching graduating classes, setting examination papers, managing a CCA, coordinating committee work, organising events, responding to parents, and so on—with the cycle repeating every semester—had left me feeling like I was on a samsaric treadmill that could not stop.

I hardly realised it at the time, but without adequate strategies to cope with stress through skilful means, the atmosphere of my classes had been compromised. Even though I thought I kept maintaining my encouraging and reassuring classroom persona in front of students, my students shared privately after school with me that they noticed how I was often worried and anxious in class. 

My micro-expressions and other body language cues must have revealed my sense of tension and unease, which had invariably filtered into my students’ consciousness as well.

Fortunately, after my students alerted me to this, I began a process of self-reflection and lifestyle adjustment. I went through all my duties to reschedule or de-prioritise whatever I could. I blocked off time for sleep (instead of marking into the wee hours) and time for regular meals (instead of skipping lunch). 

In the evenings and on weekends, I set aside time for spiritual reading, and often I would also be listening to Dhamma talks like those by Ajahn Brahm. I made a conscious effort to shift my default state of mind from restlessness and agitation to calmness and equanimity.

This shift paid off—my students noticed that I was more ‘alive’ and present during class.

It was a testament to the importance of self-care, which far from being selfish, is essential for long-term flourishing. It means setting boundaries and respecting one’s own physical and psychological limits. 

The Power of Mindfulness

As Venerable Thubten Chodron observes in her book Good Karma, “Giving up self-preoccupation does not entail making ourselves suffer. We must take care of ourselves… this human body is the basis of our precious human life that gives us the possibility to learn and practise the Dhamma.”

Meditation can also be a powerful means of promoting greater mental wellness. When my school counsellor conducted weekly secular guided mindfulness practice sessions for the whole school via the PA system, I noticed how helpful it was for my students to begin the day with such a dose of calm. 

This practice signalled how mindfulness could be beneficial for the mainstream. Through mindfulness practice, students could increase their attentiveness, reduce test anxiety, and develop greater impulse control. Teachers in turn could cultivate a greater sense of balance and become more responsive to students’ needs.

Naturally, this is not to suggest that mindfulness alone is a panacea for all teachers who experience burnout. For teachers experiencing mental health issues, support from colleagues and official channels (such as counselling services offered by the Academy of Singapore Teachers) would be crucial. 

Seeking such professional help should also never be a cause for stigmatisation. We can continue to develop a culture in which self-care is safeguarded, and access to affordable therapeutic care is normalised. 

Perhaps we could learn from therapeutic circles of care, such as those established in other countries that have leveraged community partners like trained grandmothers to provide affordable mental health support. At the same time, mindfulness can help to enhance teachers’ abilities, while ensuring that they can care for themselves in ways that allow them to care better for others. 

If “wisdom springs from meditation” (Dhammapada v. 282), teachers are in a unique position to cultivate life-changing qualities of wisdom and compassion through the practice of mindfulness for the benefit of their students.

By championing and foregrounding the importance of mental wellness, teachers can better empower their students to learn, grow, and pass on the light of mindful living to others.


Wise Steps:

  • Develop a sense of purpose and meaning in the work that you do. Minimise the risk of burnout by prioritising tasks, based on discussions with colleagues and superiors.

  • Never be too busy to take care of your physical and emotional well-being. Schedule time for regular meals and sleep. Reading or listening to Dhamma talks can also promote your mental wellness.

  • Engage in mindfulness practice as a daily habit to ground and centre yourself during difficult times. Remain motivated to practise by staying connected to like-minded spiritual friends.
Learning To Be Your Own Psychologist

Learning To Be Your Own Psychologist

TLDR: The pandemic and climate change have shown us how fragile our minds can be during times of great change. How can we take care of our minds and learn to be our own psychologist?

We spend a great part of our lives busy with our studies, career, starting a family to taking care of the family. Much of our thoughts go towards achieving a goal or doing something we enjoy. All of these seem perfectly normal, which it is since it’s how our industrialized society has functioned for generations. It is a cycle of life as we know it on earth. We are born, study, get a job, start a family, hopefully have enough to enjoy our retirement and then die.

In order to keep the cycle going, we accept the stress that comes along with it – since life is sweet and bitter right? Stress is becoming more salient with current conditions. While not everyone is clinical depressed, any unexpected change in our lives – already upended by Covid 19 and with more to come – could easily tip one over into serious depression. If you are already feeling some anxieties about the uncertainties you are facing and seeing a counsellor or psychologist is not yet a necessity, what can you do? The good news is, you can start learning to be your own psychologist.

Here are six ways on how you can do so!

1. Seeing Impermanence

There is much to worry about in our lives, especially with changes in our current economy and climate. Also, the pandemic has shown us that our lives or the retirement we work towards are not guaranteed. We could catch the virus and die, we never know. While we all dislike changes that challenge our lives, these changes are actually great opportunities for us to recognise impermanence. Changes have always been there, but we never notice it until it disrupts our lives.

Impermanence seems to be built into nature to make us feel uncomfortable in order that we may start looking inwards. Why do we have fears? Man’s greatest fear, as well as that of plants and animals, is death. The fear of death drives our behaviours. Behaviours we never suspect would come from this fear of death.

Why is there fear of death within our hearts? Perhaps we can look at our perception of the nature of change itself.

2. No Beginning, No End

If you have had a walk in the park, you might have noticed leaves falling from trees. The fallen leaves are mostly old and yellowed. There are young leaves too who have fallen from the trees. In the wilderness, these leaves decompose. Their decomposition becomes fertilizer for earth, so that more plants and trees may grow.

Plants don’t grow without water or the sunlight.

As plants turn sunlight into energy, we consume the energy of the sunlight through plants. We too, partake in the sunlight and water the plants consume, in order to survive. Our bodies are intertwined with nature.

Like a piece of paper, our bodies too contain the elements of plants, sunlight and water.

As our bodies age and die, it too could become fertilizer for earth to grow new organisms. Truth is, there is no beginning or end, but only change. One body change to another just like water turning into ice due to conditions. Despite learning about change in elementary science, we however, do not think this constant change in nature applies to us.

Our bodies are a part of nature dependent on nature. It does not belong to us. We identify with our bodies. We identify people we know with their bodies. With this identification that the body is “I”, there is always this feeling of holding onto the body. The Buddha talked about three types of feelings. We can easily feel pleasant and unpleasant feelings. What about neutral feelings? Is your mind holding onto the neutral feeling in your body when the grosser feelings are absent?

3. Investigating Perception

Our perception on normal days is impeded by mundane knowledge. When we see a tree for example, we look at it with the image we already have in our minds. With this image in our minds, we think we already know the tree and so we don’t pay attention to it. Otherwise, we look at the tree and think about what type of tree it is, if it produces flowers or fruits, or if it can be of any use for us.

It is the same when we look at people. We think we already know the person – the name, the face, the body, the school s/he came from etc. Or we produce an image in our minds of this person and hardly pay any attention to him/her.

But if we look deeper, we may find that the relationship with have with our world is based on the images we have in our mind. Isn’t it ludicrous that various feelings emerge from just having relationships with the images in our minds?

If you haven’t noticed the image in your mind, you might have noticed the narratives and voice in your mind on different objects you come into contact with.

4. Seeing the World as It Is

Our habitual identification with our perception and body do not allow us to really see things as it is. Try letting go of what you know or think you know. Look at your body without your thinking you already know who you are. What is this body and mind? Isn’t it strange and yet fascinating that this body, dependent on earth, water and sunlight, is able to move and speak? Isn’t it amazing that the brain, which lives on glucose is able to think?

When you take a walk in the park the next time, let go of the image you already have of the plants and trees. Look and listen without having preconceived notion. Let go of your feelings about them and see. What do you see?

5. Effects of Wrong Identification

We have not really lived because of the mundane knowledge we have identified with. We live in a way where we do not notice what’s around us and we get bored easily. If boredom is the only problem, then maybe it isn’t that bad. But no. We have fears, stress and anxieties and we don’t truly enjoy each breath or moment that passes.

We identify with fleeting images and narratives in our minds that are conditioned. Conditioned things are built and dependent on one another. Conditional things are how nature functions and it includes our mental and emotional world. Sadness cannot arise without happiness. Death cannot come without birth. These dualities create one another. Being concentrated on one or the other mental or emotional state create more likes and dislikes in our mind producing actions. In this endless cycle, we are living between dullness and restlessness, birth and dying, pleasure and fear. Underneath the gross states is a neutral feeling we hold onto we call “I”, which we emphasize with gross feelings. Anything threatening the survival of this feeling of an “I” causes stress and fear. It truly is an ocean in a storm even if subtle.

6. Letting Go

To begin with the small steps of letting go of duality is to start seeing and hearing with a fresh mind every moment. This is a repeated intentional action we take in our minds all the time. Why let go? The wise throughout the ages have said the same thing – if the mind and body truly are ours, it would not change. If earth truly is our home, why do we die?

Impermanence is a great teacher that teaches us to let go with everything we do. We do what we have to do and let it go. If we want to experience good effects, just do good by way of compassion, friendship and non-expectation. Let things unfold and observe if the law of cause and effect is truly real in our experience.

For every negative emotion, there is the positive counterpart in our world of duality. If you are impatient, there is also patience within you. It’s not that it’s not there, but you may not have explored it as much as impatience.

Recognise how desire feels. Does it feel good? Does it make you feel contentment? Funny thing about desire is, there is this heightened feeling that drives action and produces a pleasant thought in our minds.

We tend to think desires bring gratification and so chase after it. But truth is, behind every desire also lies disappointment, regrets and sadness when we don’t get what we want, or when what we want disappears in this world of impermanence.

Staying Curious

By being curious and inquiring into our feelings and impermanence, we learn to be our own psychologist. We begin with noticing how our minds are identifying with different feelings, thoughts and objects that never last. Slowly and surely, insights will arise on the nature of impermanence. In the process we will slowly learn to let go of anxieties and fears while enjoying every breath without holding on, for nothing truly belongs to us.


Wise Steps:

1. Be curious about your experiences in terms of feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral). See how each action, driven by desire, bring up an effect in your experience.

2. Put away the knowledge you have about your environment and the people around you. See them for what they are, and not the relationship you have with them in the image of your mind.

3. Notice with curiosity how each feeling in you ceases eventually. Don’t act on the impulse and see if the feeling persists when you don’t indulge in it. See impermanence in your experience.