Ep 7: Cultivating Empathy & Living Authentically (Ft Gwen Yi)

Ep 7: Cultivating Empathy & Living Authentically (Ft Gwen Yi)

Kai Xin  00:00

Hi there! It’s mental health awareness month. So here’s a reminder that you have to take care of yourself well in order to have the capacity to take care of all other aspects of your life. If life is quite smooth sailing for you. I hope it stays this way. And if you’re going through a rough patch, may you have the mental and emotional strength to overcome all difficulties. 

In this episode, we will be talking about empathy. We all know that having empathy creates better relationships with others and is a tool for us to alleviate the suffering of others. But do you know that developing empathy can also improve your own mental health? But how exactly can we cultivate empathy? 

Hi, I’m Kai Xin, your host for this episode and you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves Podcast, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. The path to happiness isn’t a smooth one. We’ll definitely meet with setbacks and challenges around work, relationships, mental well-being and many more. In this podcast, we discuss these realities of life and explore how we can bring the Dhamma closer to home, so that we can navigate the complexities of life just a little better.  

Besides this podcast, we also share resources and insights on our Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram channel. Subscribe if you haven’t already done so!  

With my co host, Cheryl, we have the pleasure to speak with Gwen Yi, the founder of Tribeless, to teach us how exactly empathy can be cultivated and learned.  Gwen is an amazing and highly accomplished woman. Her work has received recognition from TED, Obama Foundation, and The World Economic Forum. Six years ago, Gwen started Tribeless as a social movement for strangers to skip the small talk and to create deeper connections over dinners, one conversation at a time. So heads-up, this conversation with Gwen is going to be a deep one! Tribeless movement has since evolved into a training company.

Gwen and her team developed a structured framework & curriculum on how one can cultivate empathy to improve relationships at home, at work, and with oneself. Their proprietary methodology is used by thousands of people across 30+ countries. Stick till the end as Gwen unpacks the 5-part approach for us. Besides all the practical tips Gwen shares in this episode, she also pulled back the curtains and let us see the version of herself that not many know about. 

Gwen identifies herself as a perfectionist. And it’s interesting how she was so candid about her imperfections in this episode. And her being an expert on the topic of empathy, you would have thought that she knew everything about that subject matter. But it seems that she’s constantly unlearning and relearning. And I just find that so inspiring. If you think you know the topic well already, also join us in this episode to unlearn and relearn, and reevaluate different aspects of your life. Now, let’s dive right in.

Cheryl  02:59

Super excited to have you on the podcast today. When you first started Tribeless dinner gatherings, the only rule there was ‘no small talk.’ Let’s use the same theme to start today’s conversation. I think you can give a quick introduction about yourself and then you would have to answer two questions.

Gwen  03:46

Hi, everybody, my name is Gwen Yi. I’m a writer, facilitator and also the founder of Tribeless. We are an empathy training company that operates out of Malaysia, but we service clients and organisations around the world. And our dream is to create a world where everybody has the tools and skills to have empathetic conversations in their lives.

Cheryl  04:07

Thanks for sharing Gwen. So let’s get to know you a little bit deeper. The first question I have is, if the world were to end tomorrow, what would you do on your last day?

Gwen  04:18

Based on how I feel right now, I think I would spend it in nature. I’ve recently been more, I guess, into the idea of being in nature. I feel a calling to be outdoors more and more these days. So, I will be in nature and I will also hopefully take the opportunity to be in conversation with friends, surround myself with my loved ones, and also be outside.

Cheryl  04:51

Would there be any one in particular that you would like to have your last conversation with?

Gwen  04:57

Probably just my partner, Shawn. I learn so much every time I talk to him. He’s such a deep well of wisdom, empathy, and kindness. And I feel like every time I talk to him, I gain (new) perspectives. And if I consciously or maybe unconsciously knew that was my last day on earth, I probably would take a lot of comfort from his companionship and his words.

Cheryl  05:19

That’s so sweet!  Why I asked that question is because understanding how you would like to spend your last day really helps us understand what you really value in life. And from the things that you’ve shared, it seems that, finding serenity on your own and with others is important to you. And even till your last day you still want to build relationships with people, and to have that connection.

Kai Xin  05:40

(Second question:) I think a lot of people see the very extroverted side of you. Example: Gwen is so successful, she does so many things, this and that. What do you think, is something people don’t necessarily see, but is what you value very much?

Gwen  05:40

Oh~  Wow, there are two layers to that because I feel like in recent years, I’ve also been less vocal on social media. So, I share less of myself with the world. And it was only recently that I started to think or feel that the idea people have of me is somewhat crystallised four or five years ago. (But) They (probably) don’t know the me now.  And only recently that bothered me. I was in the phase of not even caring that people didn’t know who I am or how I feel. It is only recently, that I feel that I’m ready to share myself with the world again but in a more authentic and vulnerable way.  Last time, I felt my my vulnerability was maybe a little bit performative. I would say things because I knew that it would resonate with people. And of course, it was my truth. But it wasn’t the full picture. I wasn’t  ‘soft’ in it, if that makes sense. I feel like that, in a way, is also indirectly answering your question.  These days, I feel like I’m more me than I’ve ever been. I love spending time with myself. I’ve been exploring more into my spirituality, my individuality, all those things. And I think that also necessitates stepping back from social media. Because if you’re constantly sharing about your journey, then you may start to wonder if what I am going through is actually real. Or am I just saying things because I want to share them with the world?  So I would say that’s probably one thing that people don’t know about me is that I actually prefer my own company to the company of others these days. And I’m really going deep into my journey with spirituality.

Kai Xin  07:33

So would you say spirituality is something that you are focusing on this year, or in the next few years?

Gwen  07:39

I don’t like the term focus. Because I feel that it implies that every year, I will have that few things that I care a lot about, and everything else I don’t care. I know, that’s not what it means. But I don’t know why I get that feeling.  I feel like I am trying to be very conscious about being an embodied human being. And what that means is, every aspect is important to me. So I think particularly spirituality, it has been neglected or even abandoned for many, many, many years, probably my whole life. So yes, it might seem that that is more of a focus these days, simply because I’m starting basically from zero. But that’s just like anything, right? When you’re doing something for the first time, you tend to spend a little bit more energy on it. But I definitely wouldn’t say it’s my sole focus, or the main thing in my life, because everything has equal importance to me. I work a lot on my health (because) I’ve a lot of chronic health issues. I work a lot on my business, obviously, I work a lot on myself, I work on my relationships. So I feel like all those things are all very important, and a part of being a full human. And that would be my focus. I guess.

Kai Xin  08:55

That’s an interesting perspective to look at. Because sometimes we get very narrow-minded by looking at one thing, and everything else is being compromised. Thanks for sharing that.

Cheryl  09:06

I think it also shares the perspective that you’re actually expanding your life to be more embodied. And I am curious to know when you started on the spiritual journey. You mentioned that you’re only just really looking to see the importance of spirituality. What  the biggest learning been for you?

Gwen  09:29

I feel like the biggest learning these days has just really been to, pardon my French, take note of my own bullshit. Genuinely, I really had no idea how much, for example, my past trauma had influenced the way I see the world. Through meditation, through going inward and understanding all of that, I realised that a lot of it is not real. So, I need to sift out what is true — true in the universal sense, but also true for me. What is the baggage or things from the past that are actually not true that I’ve been carrying around with me like a ball and chain that is actually holding me back from expansion and living up to my full potential. So, I would say that’s the journey I’m on. And those are the things that I’ve been unpacking recently.

Kai Xin  10:27

Could you share an example?

Gwen  10:29

The one that comes to mind is the belief that nobody likes me, this is a very vulnerable piece for me, because I still don’t know where it came from, and actually makes no sense, yet it makes a lot of sense in terms of (explaining) my actions in the past. Shawn likes to call me “try hard.” And in a lot of ways I am… I was.  I feel like the idea that I couldn’t be me, and I always had to only show a certain side of me, or I can only show me in a PR and packaged manner and be presented in a certain way, and that the truest, most authentic expression of myself wouldn’t be accepted. That was a belief I carried for a very long time. And I’m actually in the process of very, very intentionally dismantling it now. It’s been a very interesting process for that.

Kai Xin  11:27

Thanks for sharing that vulnerable aspect. Can you walk us through how you’re trying to unpack that belief to show up as who you are and what does authenticity mean to you?

Gwen  11:45

The more I go into this, the more I realise authenticity is probably my number one value. When I see people not living authentically, or not living in alignment to their integrity and their truth, I actually get very triggered. That is how I know authenticity is important to me.  I actually don’t think I can define it. But I tend to see it as living in alignment to your truth. You can define truth as your intuition, your gut feeling, your values, your principles, all those things. I feel like all those make up our truth, so to speak.  So, for me, living authentically can go from having a conversation about how I feel about something instead of just swallowing it , all the way to knowing that I want to do something.  For example, if I want to write more, not living authentically would be using all the 5 million excuses to not do it. But living authentically is to lean into that fear and say, ‘Yes, I’m afraid, but this is important to me.’. Doing this is actually the most authentic expression of myself. So, I will do it.  Hence, to answer your question, the way that I’ve been doing it (be more authentic) is to embark on a 100-day creative project. And the goal for this project is to create one tiny, beautiful thing every day, which can look different day to day. 

For me, because I can’t just focus on one thing, I’ve been doing so many different things. I’ve been having conversations with friends, and conversations are actually creative, right? For example, this conversation we’re having is actually creative because it’s generating new ideas.  I’ve been through, you know, all the usual suspects, like writing, painting, you know, taking walks in nature, like all these different things. But the biggest hurdle I’ve had to overcome is actually to share it with the world. So, I’ve been expressing it more on social media. I have a sub-stack where I publish short blogs and things like that. And it sounds silly, because, like you mentioned at the beginning that I used to live so publicly, so it might be a shock to people.  They might wonder if it is hard for me to post a blog because in the past I blog and people read it. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s different now. I almost had to relearn how to show myself from scratch, and that’s the journey I am now on. And it’s been amazing and it’s been so fulfilling. Obviously, it’s been hard, and so, so scary to express myself in different mediums and to try different things. I am really grateful to have committed to it.

Kai Xin  14:30

It’s interesting. You mentioned how people might comment on your current journey and go ‘what’s so hard about posting?’, but it’s all internal, right? We feel different. And it almost seems as though we need to fit into a kind of mould to say, what should you be doing to be considered as hard? And I don’t know whether you feel like there’s a tendency to downplay your own struggles?

Gwen  14:56

100%. This is also something I’m learning in this journey. It’s very funny actually, like sometimes Shawn sits down in front of me. He says, I think you don’t think you’re human. And I’m like, Yeah, I think you’re right. What I mean by that is the expectations that I have on myself, I’m only now learning are inhuman. I don’t see myself as human because my expectation are inhuman. And I think a lot of people can probably resonate with this because if you’re a perfectionist, your expectations of yourself are already inhuman. Because you know how we always say no human is perfect. So, the fact that you think you can be perfect is actually already an inhuman  expectation. That has been something I’ve been really trying very hard to unlearn.

The reason why I struggled with that for so long is because when I was younger, I had to suppress a lot in order to show up as a ‘normal’ human being.  I went through a lot, but I didn’t want to show the world that I was going through a lot. I don’t know why I had that mindset, and I think that carried with me into adulthood, to the point where now, I’m almost 30, yet I still need to unlearn all those things before I go any further into the future so that I know that, in reality,  it’s okay to not be perfect all the time.

All those cliches are true, like “Done is better than perfect.”, “Getting things out there, is better than not getting it out at all.” This project has really just helped me to keep getting out there. This is just part of the process and it’s okay to go put yourself out there. It’s okay, if you feel it’s a failure. It’s just a part of the process, so just keep, keep going.

Cheryl  16:58

Thank you so much for sharing. And I think when you are able to embrace your imperfections and put it out there, it has ripple effect where people will say, she has so much courage, let me try something new too! I’m super curious, in your journey from being someone who’s super perfectionist and trying to then now be a little bit more comfortable with your imperfections, was there a turning point that you realised that being perfectionist is unsustainable?

Gwen  17:30

I feel like it was just a lot of little, little moments that built up over time. My colleague is actually on a sabbatical for her mental health, and that was actually a catalyst for me to look at myself and the way that we were doing things. For example, the way I lead, the way our team works. It was like a wake up call. And I guess if you had to attribute it to a particular moment, it would be that moment, right? Because this was a few days after my birthday, actually, that’s how I remember it very well. I’m like, “Wow, best birthday present ever. Haha. Sarcastic.” That was when Shawn decided to like dump it all on me and say like, “These are things that you know, you’re doing that weren’t so great, that actually like contributed to this.” In a lot of ways, it was that thing ( the feedback) that catalysed me to actually make a change. And like, that wake up call that things can’t continue the way that they are. And at the same time, it was also because of the environment that I could not be as controlling anymore because we were one man down, and  things still needed to be done. And so I couldn’t be as perfectionist as we needed to get things done. So I think it was both of those things combined that really catalysed that that process too.

Cheryl  18:58

How I understand your journey from becoming a perfectionist to being a little bit more open is kind of forced you were forced into it. And then you are then forced to adapt to opening up your way of doing things.

Gwen  19:24

I love that, “opening up your way of doing things.” I feel like that’s all we ever need to do, right? Like we all have certain ways that we show up in the world that we do certain things. And all we need to do is learn how to open it up. And I feel like that also comes back in a very strange way to what we were originally talking about, which is like being with ourselves right? Because if you don’t feel safe in yourself, because safety is the necessity for that openness, right? If you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to open yourself up to anything. You’re not gonna open yourself to change. You’re not going to open yourself up to wake up calls or to anything. So I felt like, that safety that we need to develop in ourselves is so important as the precursor for everything else, because otherwise that growth is not sustainable.

Cheryl  20:09

Can you help me to understand what it means to feel safe within yourself?

Gwen  20:13

I’ve always felt like I wanted to jump out of my own skin. I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s anxiety, maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s the mental health struggles that I grew up with. But I never felt settled in my own body. I never felt settled in my own mind. It was always racing a million miles a minute. I probably have undiagnosed ADHD, I don’t know. But I think through a combination of like, all the things we talked about, like meditation, spiritual practices, solitude is a huge thing, right? Just learning to be with yourself, take yourself out on dates, you know, eat by yourself, not with your phone, but like by yourself, and then just learning to just be in that state of solitude. And I will even say, of ‘connection’ to yourself and also to the world around you. I feel like that for me is that practice.

Kai Xin  21:07

I understand that you took a while, I think last year to recalibrate and find that internal alignment. does it connect to what you’ve just shared with us?

Gwen  21:18

I think yes, and no. I would say my spiritual journey really just started last year, but not really as well, like I did have coaching with a friend who’s also a practising spiritual coach. That was since 2019, but I would say it was only really like last year, that I paid for a self paced course with a yoga teacher that I really admire. And just doing that course, on my own time, also, in a way forced me to build that habit, or that sadhana, of having that daily practice with myself. But it’s not that I purposely took out a break or anything, it was an ongoing process that I integrated into my everyday. And I think that’s actually what’s needed to be sustainable, as opposed to, you know, going on some retreat or whatever, and then coming home, and then needing to figure out how to integrate it. It was really integrated from the start.

Kai Xin  22:09

And how has that spiritual practice, change the way you lead your team, show up to the world, especially with the perfectionist tendency? Have you seen any changes?

Gwen  22:20

Yeah, it’s so interesting, because my friend who’s a spiritual coach,  she said to me, ‘I really hope that one day you would be able to bring these practices into your work.’. And I couldn’t brain that. But now, looking back, I feel like I have been. And I think it’s just simply because your spiritual practices or your personal practices affect who you are. And obviously, who you are affects your team.

For example, I have  a racing mind. I’ve tried everything in the morning, I’ve tried journaling, I’ve tried walking, and so on. One thing that made the biggest difference for me was meditation. So, just 10 minutes of sitting with a guided meditation, it grounds me and it sets me up for the whole day. And because of that, I actually get to almost see, in real time, when I’m being extra controlling, it’s almost like I can see myself doing that. And I’m like, oh, okay, I understand what I’m doing wrong now, then I will stop, and be quicker to build that awareness. Because it’s the first thing I do every day, it actually creates that awareness already. So, it’s easier to tap back into that awareness when I’m at work. I guess that in and of itself has already created the cascading effect to improve everything else and for how the team shows up. Because in general, my team is very vocal, they would call me out if they notice things. Sometimes I don’t listen because I’m too into it. But this (awareness) allows me to step back quicker. I can actually notice, ‘ Oh, you’re right, I am doing that’, versus in the past, I would rebut and say ‘oh my god, I got do that meh?’.   Yeah, now the cycles are faster.

Kai Xin  23:57

You are in the business to help people to be more empathetic. Would you say that meditation has helped you increase your empathy quotient? And now that you have the situational and self awareness, how has that changed the relationship between you and your loved ones or your colleagues?

Gwen  24:16

I feel like there’s a lot to unpack there. I’ll go with the first question, which is, does meditation or basic self awareness practices actually contribute to your empathy quotient? And I would say, yes, because the way we look at empathy, there’s different levels of empathy. 

The first level is empathy to yourself, which is the basis of all empathy. You can practice the act of empathising with somebody else, but if you don’t actually have that self empathy, which I only just recently discovered for myself, you’re not actually empathising with the other person. It’s more of an intellectual exercise rather than a full embodied actual empathy. 

Level two is also interpersonal. You know, when you’re in a conversation, let’s say like with your mom with your dad in that one on one space, then there’s also a level of empathy. 

I would say the third level of empathy that we work with is almost a systemic level of empathy, which is a group dynamics level of empathy; how to empathise in a group.

So that was the work that Tribeless was doing for a very long time. We didn’t realise it, but through our stranger dinners, just naturally, by gathering a group of strangers, we were already creating group level dynamics at an almost systemic level.  So in a way, we’ve been trying to like reverse engineer it back down all the way to how can one practice empathy towards oneself, and how can you practice empathy between two people? I’ve been developing that empathy to myself.

For example, perfectionism, when I’m not perfect, empathy to myself would be realising that I did my best, because at any given moment, I am doing my best. (Because) if somebody else had gone through self-doubt, how would I react? I would already naturally think of all the different reasons why they did not achieve what they wanted to achieve, and I would be understanding and compassionate to them about that. So, why can I apply that to myself? 

So, I think meditation, and just through that process (of developing awareness) has enabled me to be more open to the idea opening up myself. And slowly, slowly, slowly, it has been seeping into my everyday life.

Cheryl  26:38

I’m just curious, in your own words, how would you define empathy, Gwen?

Gwen  26:44

I have the Tribeless definition. What is my own definition? I’ll just say the Tribeless one. We think of empathy as the ability to see parts of ourselves in everybody else. What that means is, all of us have emotions, dreams, fears, challenges, all those things. And those are the points of connection that we can use to build empathy, and also relationships with other people. If you see someone, they look so different from you on the outside, because we’re only focusing on our differences. Empathy is looking for those points of commonality.  And it’s because of those universal points of commonality, that we can tap into our shared humanity. And it’s through that process, that we can start to develop our empathy muscles and our empathy quotient towards other people, and therefore the world.  I know, it sounds easier said than done. And the way we do it, (plugging Tribeless) is through conversations, because there’s actually no other way to do it.

While there’s a lot of research out there that says that you can build empathy by reading books, watching movies, but we feel like it’s a very one-way approach. The former would suggest that if I watched a movie and cry when the character cries, that’s empathy.  On another hand, we feel that if it’s in a form of conversation, you can build your empathy muscles by actively try to understand what they’re saying or when they show you something. If after you understand what they’re saying, you look for those points inside of yourself that you can resonate with, that’s  what builds that connection. 

So, for me, for us at Tribeless, that’s how empathy contributes to building relationships. Because it’s in those conversations, that instead of bringing your own ideas and mindsets into your conversation and shutting down what the other person is saying, you’re listening and understanding what they’re saying, make sure you understand it, then look for those points of connection and resonance in yourself to build that relationship.

Cheryl  28:50

I had an alternative view. So I think a lot of empathy comes from understanding and also seeing the commonalities that is on the assumption that people are on the fundamental level, similar to what extent, is that true? Are we really similar at the fundamental level?

Gwen  29:09

I get what you’re saying. To clarify, what I’m saying is not that we are similar as in, my dream is to have a family, and your dream is also to have a family, then we are similar.  What I’m saying is, at the fundamental level, what are the emotions that would build a common ground. For example, every single human being on Earth experiences sadness, anger, pain, joy. We can build common ground on those instead of building common ground on opinions. For example, wanting the others to vote for the same person as you did. Those are the things that eventually can become divisive rather than to unite. 

Here’s an example of how understanding through differences can look like: Shawn is in a very bad mood. The first thought is to try and understand why. Perhaps he went through X. I may not have gone through X, but if I know the underlying emotion of X is (let’s say rejection), then, I can relate that I’d also be in a terrible mood if I experienced that. I can start to empathise on that level.  Of course, I won’t go up to him and say, ‘why did you feel rejected, I also feel rejected before.’. Instead, it’s responding in a way that takes their feelings into account. That’s why empathy is so nuanced, and it’s really hard to explain it fully. I know that, for example, when Shawn feels rejected, he would like to be left alone. That’s actually empathy towards him, because I know that he really appreciates his own time and space to process things. Whereas for me, I love it when someone sits down with me and talk to me, and make me feel better when they noticed that I’m feeling rejected. So it’s the total opposite of what he would want.  

A lot of people think that empathy is to see the same emotion, then do what makes them feel better. But that’s not true. In a relational context, the true empathy is knowing the other person, understanding them, knowing their preferences, and how they like to be showed up for. Then, after they are done and feel more settled, to be open to them again if they need a space to talk on their own terms. We have so many different relationships in our life, we have so many different people who will respond in different ways. So, empathy is being able to be observant and understand the relationship and respond accordingly in that context.

Cheryl  31:51

The takeaway that I have is that, in a way, empathy is also very egoless. Because it’s not so much about what you want, what you think would be fantastic for the situation, but rather, tuning into the suffering that the person is experiencing, as you have had, and seeing how you can show up best for the person and make the situation a little bit better.  I too think empathy is so nuanced. And I think your company has done an amazing job in creating a very structured way of teaching people how to develop and cultivate empathy. Do you want to walk us through the steps?

Gwen  32:29

We do have something called the empathy box. And it’s interesting that it emerged from those stranger dinners. So, it’s not that we have PhD in empathy that we developed this tool. What is that anyway? The empathy box came from, I think, hundreds or maybe even thousands of hours of conversations with people on the ground every every month. Through flying to Singapore, flying around the world, talking to people, we realise that the way that people respond fits into a few categories.  For example, if you’re ever wondering, how can I verbally show empathy to somebody in that moment, these are the five steps or the five categories of responses that you can take. 

First one, is to show some love.

I feel that this is a step that we tend to forget or neglect because we are embarassed to do it. We don’t know how to show love. When we say show some love, what we mean is to appreciate, to validate, and to find something in what people say to resonate with. So, if you cannot find anything at all, you can just say something as simple as ‘thank you for sharing, I really appreciate you opening up to me’, or, ‘I really appreciate you sharing that. I didn’t know that about you, that gives me a better understanding about you.’. These really simple sentences can help make the person feel safe.

Because topics on “suffering” or negative feelings makes one feel very vulnerable, and it can make one feel very scared to open up, especially in our Asian society. That’s why we tend to keep it inside right instead of sharing. So, if someone does share with you, it’s a huge act of courage. And so the first step is to show some love.

The next step is to help me understand.

To help me understand is essentially asking questions and leaning into curiosity. Instead of assuming that we know exactly what they’ve gone through, make sure you actually know what they’re saying.  With your eyes, you’re seeing. For example, the way that they are behaving. Let’s say, if Shawn tells me that he feels fine, I can that I noticed that he looks a lot sadder than usual. So, you’re just calling out certain observations. Or in another example, in the case of my team, where we talked about me being over controlling, that’s an observation; they might call out that I’m trying to change things or control things that are actually not within my scope of influence. That’s how observations can be used. 

Let’s use the the Shawn example again. If he says like, ‘oh, yeah, I’m not feeling too great.’. I should say, ‘oh, yeah, I knew it, something happened, right?’, because that’s not a question, that’s a leading statement. Curiosity is to ask them what happened and to invite them to share more about how they are feeling. Usually at this point, you can see, the curiosity is giving permission for that person to keep sharing if they wish to. But probably at that moment, you can also tell if they don’t wish to share anymore. Sometimes when we are asking too many questions, and if the other person doesn’t seem very responsive, they’re may not want to answer you. That’s also when we can stop and save the conversation for another day, and let them know that they can always come to you. But if they are willing to share more, that leads into the later categories, which are sharing an observation and offer an alternate perspective. 

I’ll talk about observation first.

Observation, is observing the person you know and understand what’s going on.

In a way we call it listening with your ears as well as with your eyes. 

Next, offer an alternate perspective.

This isn’t advice but it’s a different way of looking at it. It’s just like how you said Cheryl, “I had a similar experience, but in a different way.”, one can say, ‘I really resonate with what you’re saying. This is what I went through.’. Normally, after you’ve gone through all the other steps, that person is already in the space of listening and learning. So, when you do bring in your own perspective and experience, it’s not stealing the spotlight from them anymore. But it’s really just giving them extra ways to look at their situation, which for some people, is useful. If not, these are just categories to inspire, as it’s what you feel that person would really resonate with most. 

Last but not least, is the wild card. The wild card really is, if your responses do not fit into the first four categories, then you can use the wild card. 

So, these five response cards were really developed for groups, because I believe that in a group, when we’re having a conversation as a group, it’s a collaborative process. It doesn’t mean that one single person needs to use all four cards at once to respond to the person. It depends on what the storyteller in the situation is sharing.

So let’s say in this case, I’m sharing something and both of you also had those five cards.  I’m pretty sure Cheryl and Kai Xin would respond with different kinds of responses.

For example, Kai Xin has been using a lot of questions. Perhaps that is your preferred way of empathising, leaning into your to your curiosity and asking more.  For Cheryl, you seem to be really good at sharing observations. You would sum up what I’ve said, and then offer an alternate perspective, or you would rephrase what I said for me to look at what I’ve shared in a different way.  I appreciate both very much. So, it really depends on what your personal style is, and of course also realising what the other person likes to receive. 

For example, I like to receive love and perspective. I love getting perspectives, because that’s how I process. I like to look at things in a different way. It’s very interesting to know what you like and what other people like. Especially in a group setting, everyone gets the chance to try it out and to see what their preferred style is, because it will become very obvious when you tend to reach for that particular card more than the rest. From that, you would realise what your style is, and that process is a visual way of learning and practising empathy.

Cheryl  39:09

The five steps that you walked us through, is really like a muscle where the more you do it, the more familiar you are with your tendencies. It also allows you to learn how to flow through the conversation in a very natural way, rather than being systematic going from first step, second step, third step, etc.

Gwen  39:27

Yeah, exactly.

Cheryl  39:28

So, you have covered the do’s of empathy. But what about the ‘don’ts’ of empathy?

Gwen  39:32

That’s a good question. I feel like these are maybe very obvious, but maybe not so obvious as well. Obviously, don’t interrupt what I say. I tend to interrupt a lot, as I get too excited. That ties into the second thing, which is don’t assume. A lot of times, especially if we know that person very well, someone we’re very close to like our family, we tend to naturally assume what they are going through based on things that have happened before. For example, let’s say that person has ongoing mental health challenges. If that friend comes to you and tells you that s/he had a bad day, our brain may very naturally jump and assume that it must be their mental health acting up again. So, don’t assume, and don’t advise. 

This might be a good time to bring it up another point: Empathy is not only about suffering. A lot of times, we may think that to empathise is to take somebody out of their suffering. Yes, it might be true that if you have empathised successfully with someone, it can lessen their emotional burden a bit. So, in a way it can seem like we are lessening their suffering. But in reality, empathy is to journey with someone through whatever they’re going through. It may not be suffering, it may actually be joy.  Have you ever tried empathising with somebody’s joy, when someone is celebrating something, and you have also felt that joy of success, and you say to them, ‘ oh, my gosh, such a great job, I’m so proud of you.’? That’s actually empathy as well. So, we can actually use empathy on both sides of the spectrum. 

Those are the three main things that I could think of right now: (a) don’t interrupt,  (b) don’t assume,  (c) and don’t try to save them, or fix them. 

We do that because we feel uncomfortable with their feelings of sadness. And that actually comes back to what we said earlier in this conversation about that self-awareness and that self-empathy.  A lot of times why people don’t like empathy as a concept is because they see everyday people burn out from their empathy. We hear about this a lot: mental health professionals burnout, nurses burnout from the empathy because they’re giving too much of their compassion and their empathy. But the thing is, true empathy comes from a place of non ego, meaning, you’re actually not giving off yourself, you’re simply creating that space to understand what the other person is going through. And if you notice, in that moment, that you are not in a good space to hold that space for the friend, then that’s your chance to hold empathy to yourself and to say, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I’m actually not in a space to listen right now. Could we talk about this later today? Could we talk about this tomorrow?” 

Sharing that compassionately is creating that understanding of the empathy for yourself, but also your empathy for that person. Because even if you try to listen to them at that moment, you’re not actually present. And that’s also not true empathy. If we’re not honest with ourselves and with that person, it might end up being detrimental to the relationship in the long run, and causing resentment to build up.  

So, I really believe that empathy is not just about suffering, it’s also about joy. But it’s also about knowing your own boundaries. And being able to communicate that in a compassionate way.

Kai Xin  43:15

I picked out a few things. First, the tendency of wanting to fix other person could be a reflection of how we want to be perfect. Just being able to sit with our discomfort of seeing other people suffer or being with our own suffering, I think that’s so powerful. It takes a lot of courage to say, ‘I don’t have to do anything, I just can watch it, observe and let it pass.’. And that’s holding space. 

The second thing I picked up is that in order to connect with others, we first need to be able to connect with ourselves, to know how am I feeling right now. Do I have the capacity, and understanding where the giving is coming from? Is it from a place of ego? Am I trying to trying to give so that I feel empowered, like to feel like I’m more helpful? Because I noticed this sometimes in me as well, I feel good helping people. But it doesn’t come from a place of selflessness. And that’s where the compassion fatigue kicks in. It would be very different, if it’s just me being here and that I don’t have to hold any expectations of what I should do or what the outcome of the conversation should be. I’m just here. The feeling is very different.

Gwen  44:35

100%. That is so true. And the irony is that the people who tend to want to empathise more, who tend to be there more for their friends are those who might be falling into that trap without them realising.  I say this because that was the role I played for my friends the whole time growing up, and that’s how I completely burned out in terms of empathy. Because I will always be the one to listen, and to hold space for them, I didn’t have that capacity to also share and to be vulnerable myself. 

So, empathy is a two way street. It’s not only about giving empathy to others everyday, but also realising that in that relationship, we need to be able to be vulnerable as well, and to share and to lean on that person, which is so hard for people like you and me, because we are so used to being the one helping to being the strong one. It’s so hard to be the one to tell someone that you need their shoulder to cry on, and ask if they are okay with that.

Kai Xin  45:40

Speaking of that, because I think we have similarities in a sense, where maybe some people would see us as quite independent. I’m just wondering what it means for you to take a step back, and to be a little bit more vulnerable.

Gwen  45:58

I think to be vulnerable, is to be honest, without necessarily knowing how your honest feedback will be received.

Kai Xin  46:10

Can you elaborate more on that?

Gwen  46:13

This is definitely personal to me, I don’t think this is the official definition – but I feel like vulnerability to me comes back to what we talked about this a lot in this episode: The self-expression and the embodiedness of being.  I felt like for me, as I’m on this process, I think I always know what I want, it’s always in the back of my head. But whether or not I actually have the courage to share that either out loud, or on social media, or to the person that I need to talk about that, the act of choosing to do that without necessarily knowing how it would be received from that person (is a form of vulnerability). For example, let’s say for social media, sometimes when you want to share something that’s true to you, but you’re not very sure how people will receive it or how they react to it. Or let’s say you want to give a feedback to a friend or to a loved one, and you’re not sure how they are going to receive that feedback. So, that’s kind of what I mean by not being sure how it would be received, but choosing to do that anyway. Choosing to lean into that courage, and to still take that step, to me, that’s vulnerability.

Kai Xin  47:31

It seems like a very internal perception rather than external because I personally observe and notice the typical definition of vulnerability is based on what you manifest externally. For example, crying is a form of vulnerability. Being vulnerable means you don’t have to always put up a strong front. It’s okay to cry on people’s shoulders, it’s okay to feel a little bit sad. It’s okay to express that you actually do not know what you’re doing in life, you don’t have everything figured out. And it’s very expressive. At least that’s what I thought.  And it’s quite interesting that you brought about another angle: it’s more about how you internalise it, how you hold that truth, without us needing to compromise it (our truth) just because of our fear of judgement.

Gwen  48:24

That’s so good. Because I feel like that’s actually what I meant when I said, my vulnerability was performative earlier in this episode. I felt like sometimes, when I did all that, I thought I was being vulnerable. And yes, I was being vulnerable to maybe like you said, society standards, or to the external standards. But after going through this process for so many years, I realised now that it’s actually more of an inside job, right, rather than an external show of it. Because some people might not find that vulnerable at all.   I can speak for myself. I find it harder to reach out to a friend or to somebody that I don’t know and speak to them one on one as compared to speaking on stage, or to speak on this podcast about my struggles.  For some people, they cannot comprehend that at all.  But the thing about vulnerability is that just like human beings, every single one of us have different fears, a different (types of) vulnerability, a different whatever, right?  So that’s why we can’t just say if you’re doing X, it means that you’re being vulnerable. It’s more of that feeling that you get from taking risks, taking chances, and putting a piece of yourself out there, in whatever way.

For example, it could be me reaching out to a friend, or putting a piece of myself out there. Similar to how somebody’s speaking on a podcast and feeling afraid about doing that as they are putting a piece of themselves out there. All of us have different vulnerabilities, but it’s about that process, and you recognising what that means for yourself. It is about saying to yourself that “I am being vulnerable right now. And, I should step back to evaluate if I am okay with that. Is this something I actually want to do, Or am I doing it because x reason? Am I doing it because nowadays society says that everyone must be vulnerable.”

Cheryl  50:15

You know, it has been really interesting and really insightful to discuss and dissect some of the things that we thought we already knew: empathy, vulnerability. It’s interesting to gain new understanding.  Moving forward, what’s next for you in life and at work?

Gwen  50:37

I’m just taking one day at a time girl. I think what’s next is definitely finishing that 100 Day project. Keep your fingers crossed, for me.  I’m also doing my best to expand the team at tribeless role in a more ’embodied’ sense. And I guess, to keep leaning further and further into my purpose, every single day.

Cheryl  51:00

In conjunction with world mental health day, any advice that you would have to give to our listeners in terms of how they can show up to be better people to themselves and to others. So just one practical thing that they can do?

Gwen  51:17

I’m always all about that practical life. The thing that comes to mind now is to take yourself on a solo date, I feel like it’s something that might be romanticised these days, and good that it is, because that actually make things more palatable, and socially acceptable.  Don’t overthink it, it can be anything that brings you joy, it can be a day in nature, it can be a day at a cafe, it can even be a day at a theme park. But it has to be alone, and it has to be something where if you can, you can hear your own thoughts.  Because I felt like for me, that was when I started to taste the flavour of my own companionship by going places alone: driving there alone, or taking public transport alone, and making an adventure out of it.

It could even be that the journey is the destination kind of thing.  For example, walking without any plan. You don’t have to reach somewhere, it could also be just a walk. And at the end of your solo date, record some sort of reflection. It could be a journal, scrapbooking, photos, or a video if you’d like to talk, but to capture what that feels like- capture what it feels like to have a friend that is you. 

You know, let’s say we hang out with our friends, we take pictures, right? And then we would post on social media and mention that hanging out was very nice because ABCDE. We could do that because we know what our friends’ company feel like. But if you are not used to your own company, you actually don’t know what your company feels like. So yeah, the practical step would be to just take yourself on a slow day and reflect on it. If you enjoy it, plan another one, and another one and another one. The possibilities are endless. You don’t have to occupy all your free time with other people. I feel like the most important relationship we can have is the relationship with ourselves. And this is one of the fun and easy ways to do it.

Kai Xin  52:47

Thanks for sharing. I think that’s a good closing. Could you share with the listeners if they want to find more about what you do your work? Where can they go?

Gwen  53:38

So you can go to www.empathybox.co to learn more about the empathy box. That’s where we also have our blog that we’re trying to grow with a lot more articles on how you can practice empathy and self compassion and all those things in your life. And if you are looking for connection activities and different ways of like team building and virtual workshops, then you can go to tribeless.co, and that’s where you can learn more about the things that we do at Tribeless as a company.

Kai Xin  54:20

I believe everything is done virtually now. So, whether you’re dialling in from Singapore or Malaysia or any parts of the world, you can check out some of the events. Thanks once again, Gwen. It’s good having you.

Gwen  54:32

Thank you so much, Kai Xin and Cheryl. Really enjoyed this conversation.

Kai Xin  54:36

Thanks, listeners for tuning in. I hope you got as much value as with it. What is your biggest takeaway?  Do share with us on our telegram chat. And if you’ve benefited from this podcast, remember to give us a five star review.  If you have benefited from this episode, do share this and tag a friend. This episode is such a great reminder to connect within in order to be able to connect with others. Through the process, we learned to be at ease with our own thoughts be observant and curious about our habitual tendencies, and to learn and appreciate every aspect of ourselves.

One of the best ways to get in touch with our own thoughts and emotion is meditation.  In conjunction with the month of Vesak and the Mental Health Awareness Month, we started a 30 days meditation challenge. The challenge is to form a daily practice for a month. You’d receive daily prompts and suggested guided meditation tracks.

And in our next episode, we will be chatting on the topic of romantic relationship and a popular question, “Is it okay for a Buddhist to have pre marital sex?” Definitely a juicy topics so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, stay happy and wise!


Special thanks for Siau Yen Chan, and Alvin Chan, for sponsoring this episode.

#WW: 👵🏻 Which part of you is living in the past?

#WW: 👵🏻 Which part of you is living in the past?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

We often laugh at friends who do not know the latest trends/ Netflix movies/ social terms. However, we rarely think that we are ‘out-of-trend’. Today we explore how we can check on which part of us is still living in the past. To seek within and not outwards. Stay wise!

1. Are you operating on Windows 95?

2. Two monks carry a woman differently. What can we learn?

Are you operating on Windows 95?

flat screen computer monitor turned on
Unsplash

What’s going on here

Adam Grant, a famous writer who writes about work-life, shares a post about rethinking our opinions and views. We often laugh at others who are ‘outdated’ in the products, films, and services they use. However, we often miss looking in the mirror for the outdated opinions we hold.

Why we like it

Adam challenges us to look deeper by first forcing us to confront the values that we hold. His post provides a nice trigger for us to recollect on changing our views and even friendships to become a better version of ourselves!

“The best way to stay true to your values is to stay open to rethinking your views. What have you rethought lately?”

Wise Steps

Have a deep thought about what values you hold close to your heart. Is there a need to rethink them? What grudges do you hold that no longer serve you?

Read it here or below

Want to challenge your old beliefs? Grab his book here!

Two monks carry a woman differently. What can we learn?

body of water surrounded by trees
Unsplash

What’s going on here

Two monks meet a woman stranded at a raging river. The senior and junior monk makes their own decision on how to approach the lady. The video highlights clinging to form vs substance.

Why we like it

This short video makes us reflect on the principles behind why we walk the Buddhist path. To let go of our preconceptions of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and focus on the present moment of what needs to be done.

“The junior monk was carrying the burden of what the senior monk had done as an emotional baggage”

Wise Steps

Does something ‘trigger’ you no matter what the person’s intention? Reflect on what you are clinging so much to that it is worth giving up your happiness for.

Enjoy the video here or below!

Want to learn more about the art of letting go? Venerable Ajahn Chah’s book Food for the Heart might help!


#WW:🤯 Selfish Meditators & The Comparing Mind

#WW:🤯 Selfish Meditators & The Comparing Mind

Wholesome Wednesdays: Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

Two wholesome content for you today!

We explore a ‘critique’ of meditation in secular settings and how we can break out of our comparing loop.

Meditation & mindfulness makes you more selfish? Really?

woman sitting on land
Cr: Unsplash

What’s going on here

CNA Article covers how mindfulness in secular settings can possibly lead to heightened levels of selfishness and independent-minded thinking. The take-home message? Mindfulness could lead to good social outcomes or bad ones, depending on context.

Why we like it

The author shares that mindfulness and Buddhism cannot be practised in separate worlds. Right Mindfulness is part of the noble 8 fold path. For one to ‘benefit’ from it in the spiritual sense, we need to develop other parts of the path.

If practitioners strive to use mindfulness to reduce suffering, rather than increase it, it’s important to ensure that people are also mindful of themselves as existing in relation with others.

Wise Steps

Even snipers can be taught ‘mindfulness’ of breathing in killing other beings. Know how to ground wholesome qualities in meditation (such as metta) and be familiar with the other aspects of the eightfold path

Click here for the article

Comparison is the thief of joy…so how do we stop comparing?

cr: Unsplash

What’s going on here

Ryan Holiday, a stoic writer, shares quick questions we can use to get over our comparing mind state. Comparison is the thief of joy, how shall we fight that default mind state?

Why we like it

While we intellectually know that comparing ourselves to our peers’ social media profiles is not healthy, it is hard to ignore it. These stoic thought experiments can help us jump out of the spirals of comparisons

“Enough will be never be enough for the person to whom enough is too little”

Wise Steps

When we catch ourselves thinking ‘wow, that person has such a shiok life’, reflect about what you have and how you might envy yourself right now if you weren’t yourself.

Watch the TikTok below or click here!


Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

This is adapted from Sylvia Bay’s bulletin for Buddhist Fellowship written in March 2020. This is a great reminder for us as we greet each new year. This pandemic throws all the curveballs we could never expect. Here is how we can l

TLDR: These are unprecedented times. The past few months have been very hard for us as the world gradually descends into a Covid-19 pandemic and we watch an accustomed way of life slowly disintegrates. Here is how we can develop faith in fearful times

Every new day seems to bring worse news and we are seized by worry and fear for the safety and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.

It doesn’t help that nobody knows how long this pandemic will drag on. What more damage will it inflict on society and the economy before it passes? Will it even be over? Will ‘normal’ life as we know it ever return?

Why Must We Not Give In To Fear & Worry?

It brings out the worst in us. In our practice, we must learn to recognise racing thoughts driven by worry and fear.

Recognition, seeing rightly, is a necessary first step to breaking away from being trapped in an endless, vicious cycle of anxiety and panic proliferating frightful thoughts which in turn heighten the overall sense of doom.

Fear and worry are powerful akusala (unwholesome) mental states that can and often do bring out the worst in us. We become selfish and self-centred. We do silly and illogical things. We hoard food, masks, sanitisers, washing detergents, toilet papers! Fear and worry drain our goodness and humanity.

Our capacity for metta, compassion, generosity, empathy and so on dissolve under the deluge of worried and fearful thoughts. Even our noble aspirations to be good Buddhists and to do the right thing for ourselves and for others are terminated in mid-stream.

That is why it is critical that we try our utmost not to give in to fear and worry. It is not easy, but it can be done.

When you see those two mental states arising, take a deep breath and acknowledge their presence.

Call them out by name: “That is fear. That is worry.”

But don’t get defensive.

Don’t self-flagellate.

Don’t blame yourself for their presence.

Just be aware of them and other akusala mental states trailing in their wake: greed, anger, resentment and so on. Then consciously and deliberately choose not to give in to all the mental negativities.

We must not because if we are decent people and especially if we want to be good Buddhists, we will regret any unkind word said and selfish action made while caught in the grip of fear and worry.

What Do We Turn Our Minds To?

Turn our minds to Faith

Instead, turn our minds to faith (saddhā). As Buddhists, our faith is in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The stronger our faith, the more we will feel fear and worry dissipate. Faith is so powerful that it can bring up intense joy and immense gratitude.

If you don’t believe, try this: take a deep breath and say slowly, mindfully and with conviction, “My faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will protect me.” Don’t think. Don’t over-analyse. If you do as instructed, you will see faith surge. Joy, gratitude and humility will wash over you.

Like all mental states, faith has to be cultivated. Therefore, set aside quiet time to pay homage to the Triple Gem. More importantly, use that time to reflect on the meaning of the ancient words.

Right reflection is necessary to strengthen faith and protect the kusala (wholesome) in the mind.

Buddha

We start by recalling the Buddha’s virtues as follows but in a language that we understand and can appreciate: “The Blessed One is an Arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.”

What stands out here is the fact that the Buddha was the epitome of wisdom (vijjā) and goodness (carana).

He had realised entirely on his own how his mind works and how suffering can cease.

And then out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to helping others to the same intuitive realisation. Buddha was an incredible teacher: ingenious and creative, uplifting and inspiring, with boundless compassion, drive and energy.

He taught Dhamma literally to the end.

As he laid dying beneath the Sal trees in Kusinara, Buddha reminded his students to strive on and to realise Nibbāna for themselves.

Buddha’s life was profoundly inspiring.

In these difficult times, we must remind ourselves to bring out that ‘Buddha’ potential in us and not give in to our darker instincts, namely, greed and anger. We must believe that we too are capable of great wisdom and goodness. We only have to stay committed to the practice and not lose faith.

Dhamma

Reflect on the virtues of the Dhamma as follows: “Well expounded is the Dhamma by the Exalted One, directly visible, immediately effective, calling one to come and see, leading on, to be personally realised by the wise.”

This is a reminder to ourselves to not get caught up in the running commentaries in our heads. Thought constructions are often unhelpful but they can be downright destructive if fuelled by fear and worry.

Instead, live in the present moment or as the Buddha had put it: “sandiṭṭhiko” (visible here and now) and “akāliko” (timeless). Learn to enjoy the NOW.

Be aware of how our mind can stay in the present, without chattering, at least for a while before it drifts off again. Be grateful each time you are aware of this present moment where the mind is quietly watchful.

Treasure this moment in the Dhamma. Feel blessed that with the guidance of a 2500-year old teaching, we too are enjoying this wondrous experience

Sangha

To recall the virtues of the Sangha is to remind ourselves that we must stay kusala and not willy-nilly stray into akusala. As the first part of the homage recitation goes, “The order of the Exalted One’s disciples is practising well; … is of upright conduct; … has entered the right path; … is practising correctly.”

Indeed, the noblest of Buddha’s disciples were all paragons of virtues. If we profess to be Buddha’s disciples, the least that we can do is to restrain our akusala instincts and to conscientiously cultivate kusala ones.

We learn to speak kindly and gently. In this trying time, where everyone is anxious and agitated, we should not add to another’s pain.

We shall act with consideration. We take (or buy) only what we need for survival and not clear the shelves because we can. We must be giving (cāga). For those of us with means, this is really a chance to cultivate generosity because there are very real and desperate needs out there. If we find our mind resisting to give, tame that stain of miserliness by giving more.

What must we do?

Be empathic.

We must be empathetic. Covid-19 obviously does not respect national boundaries. There is no one race or religion immune to Covid-19. The entire human race is in this together.

So we will not point fingers and look for convenient scapegoats. Instead, we should embrace all and help all alike. And finally, we will be grateful for our blessings to be living in a country where we have good people and resources to contain Covid-19 outbreak and save lives.

The fact that we remain hopeful despite the body blows to the economy and complete disruption to our social lives, shows that instinctively we trust the people in the forefront know what they are doing.

We must not add to their burden. Instead, we will be humble and wholly support them. We must think positive, stay optimistic and believe that this pandemic will pass.

May we all emerge from this defining challenge of our time, stronger in our faith, kinder in our words and conduct, and wiser in our thoughts. May your faith in the Triple Gem keep you well and at peace

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.