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.

3 Wise Lessons I Learnt From My Internship

3 Wise Lessons I Learnt From My Internship

TLDR: Internships are valuable opportunities for one to learn and grow. Every internship is different and there’s no need to compare. As great platforms for networking, internships can allow us to be bold and to speak out.

Internships have now become a rite of passage for university students. Lessons are learnt. White hair appears. Overtime (OT) drags. I was part of a challenging yet exciting project as an intern. Here’s what I did and my 3 takeaways.

During my internship, I worked for and with a group of solopreneurs – people who set up and run a business on their own- who were commissioned by the Chinese government to organize and host a regional China-ASEAN Startup competition. 

This competition aims to bring aspiring startups and established businesses across Southeast Asia (ASEAN) into the hub of Nanning. 

Being a politics and international affairs geek, I was excited to be a part of this project! 

This competition is one of the subsidiary events of the high-profile China-ASEAN EXPO, where state leaders of both regions regularly attend. This attachment was not your typical corporate internship. With my unique experience, I learnt not to compare with my fellow schoolmates. 

1. Comparison is the thief of joy  

It’s our human nature to compare. At times, comparisons encourage healthy competition and push us to improve. However, we must be careful of envy’s trap. 

When I was in my polytechnic days, I used to envy friends who secured internships with internationally renowned firms. I was dejected, demoralized and desperate when my applications were rejected.

I felt that opportunities were only reserved for the rich, bright and powerful. 

Little was I aware that I was a victim of the “three poisons” (Anger, Greed & Ignorance) and experienced Dukkha (Suffering). This cycle of anguish formed from Taṇhā (Craving) as I desired to conform to stereotypes and to be accepted as a contributing member of society. Thankfully, this mindset was all but in the past.

As I aged and gained wisdom from the Dhamma, I realised that interning with big firms does not necessarily mean that they are the right firms for us. 

These firms may mass employ undergraduates and drive more competition. However, interns may get less opportunity to learn and shine as the same ‘workload’ gets diluted with many other interns. 

Coupled with high expectations and added pressure, internships with these firms may not always be the thriving spot for some. I gleaned this insight from my friend’s experiences with global corporations.

Everyone learns at different speeds. In large firms, interns are often put together in a graduate program and expected to be on the same learning curve. 

I used to be a slow learner and appreciate colleagues giving me the time and space to find my feet. Working in a small group for my internship with the startup competition project, I could take adequate time to learn the ropes. With more confidence, I contributed more to the project. I had greater exposure and was able to learn more.

Every internship is different and each internship brings something different to the table. No one size fits all.

Some questions to ponder for those finding internships: Prestige or growth? Short-term or long-term? The questions help us recognize that no path is the same and it’s in our power to chart our path. Instead of comparing our internship experiences, we can focus on our learning journey and choose a firm with a culture that we stand to gain the most from.

2. Linkages – Our network is our net worth

The best part of an internship is the opportunity to network and establish links. Internships are not merely for us to gain exposure to the working world. 

As cliché as it sounds, our potential net worth is indeed determined by our network.

Internships present a valuable opportunity to speak to industry experts, high net-worth individuals, business leaders, and even government officials. 

From left: Remus, his work buddy, and his boss

I like having choices. An internship opens as many doors as possible. We never know which door will be open. For those of us considering a career switch, we could potentially chance upon someone in your desired industry during networking events.

For instance, my interest is to become a sinologist and this internship presented me with the opportunity to network with key Chinese government officials and intermediaries. Pushing boundaries, and seizing networking opportunities led to me meeting personnel from Alibaba Group, Chulalongkorn University, Startup founders among many others.

How do we network? 

Start with weak ties such as old friends in industries you are keen on or seniors from previous internships or acquaintances from networking events. 

We’d be surprised how many people say yes to small favours to connect with us. For the brave, you can try lunchclub.com (https://lunchclub.com/) which connects you to different like-minded people looking to network.

Networking helps expand’s one connection and creates potential opportunities to open more doors. However, it requires stepping out of the comfort zone which I know some may be fearful of. This brings me to the next lesson. 

3. Understanding Fear

Buddhism teaches us that all beings feel fear and anxiety. It’s normal to feel a sense of apprehension about joining a new firm or saying hi to strangers in networking sessions. 

Often, our nervousness, anxiety and fear engulf us, making us meek out. Having faith in our potential to learn and grow counters that fear with gradual confidence. Confidence is crucial even as an intern! There are benefits to honing our confidence. 

Being open and ready to speak out conveys our knowledge of your material. As an intern, speaking out establishes clear boundaries to co-workers and signals to others that we are not easy pushovers. 

By speaking up, we learn more and gain respect for being humble at learning. Internships are all about learning so it is alright to make mistakes. Be bold and optimistic rather than submit to the corporate hierarchical order. 

Remus (Second from left) & his team

Here, I am not endorsing interns step over authority! 

Rather, I believe we learn a whole lot more by speaking out (whenever necessary) since we stand to lose more opportunities to ask questions by staying quiet.

During my internship, I liaised with an external firm for creating marketing collateral. The firm assured us that the final product would align with our expectations. I suspected that the firm inferred our instructions differently and might produce something that’s below expectations and might cause delays. 

Recollecting the Buddha’s teaching of Ehipassiko – come and see for yourself or simply to investigate – overcame my fear of speaking out. True enough, upon further probing, my suspicions were proven true as there was indeed some misunderstanding. 

Beyond practising mindfulness we must also investigate before jumping to any conclusion. By doing so, we would not just seek the truth but also insulate ourselves from false accusations. 

It’s also crucial to be firm and speak up if we have any concerns. In normal circumstances, as an intern, I have limited right to speak out against leading marketing experts for an area where I have got no experience in. 

However, by knowing the project’s needs, in this case, the direction where the competition should be headed, I had the duty to manage these external stakeholders. 

The purpose of an internship is for you to learn. Thus, it’s important to step out of the comfort zone, be bold, not be fearful of making mistakes and always be ready to speak out. 

Through these lessons, I have grown to be a much happier and confident person. By not comparing, I was able to block out negative externalities and focus my time and energy on what matters. Doing so, I gained confidence and was able to expand my connections and overcome fear.  

These are my 3 takeaways from my experience as an intern. I hope this advice would provide you with some useful insights to gaining confidence and overcoming fear. 


Wise Steps:

  • Comparison is the thief of joy: Understand which internship path helps you to reach your learning goals
  • Build that networking muscles by reaching out to old friends in exciting industries or seniors from previous internships. Getting the first ‘hello’ is probably the hardest but most fulfilling step!
  • Know that dear friend fear. Countering it with knowledge, courage, and mindfulness can slowly decrease its grip on us
Good Friday Reminds Us Virtues are Heroic Acts

Good Friday Reminds Us Virtues are Heroic Acts

TLDR: Good Friday is a time to contemplate more deeply the teachings left to us by Jesus Christ. We look at the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism in the practice of virtues. 

The author is a practising Buddhist who also finds many aspects of the teachings of Jesus Christ inspiring. She writes this article based on her understanding of the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity that does not necessarily reflect the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha. She hopes readers can read with wise discernment.

Good Friday is a time where all Christians observe fasting, penance and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. To me (as a Buddhist), Jesus showed us how to carry our crosses (suffering). 

Remembering the iconic image of Christ carrying his cross during difficult times can help soothe one’s heart. Unlike the majority of us, he did not get rid of suffering through impatience or aversion. With great faith, he showed us it is possible to face suffering with forgiveness, patience and love. To me, this is one of the reasons he is so deeply revered. 

Similarly, the Buddha taught us about suffering. He taught us what suffering is, the cause of suffering and how to cease suffering. Patience is a virtue to be cultivated in Buddhism so that we may endure suffering and let it go every time it comes up.

In this post, I would like to celebrate the spirit of Good Friday with the teachings of Christ that have inspired many people in the world. 

Perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous teachings on virtue is that of giving and loving our neighbours as we would love ourselves. The Buddha too taught this in the practice of loving-kindness meditation, where we cultivate a love for ourselves and share it with all beings

The teaching of virtues

Another parallel between Christianity and Buddhism is that Jesus too, taught morality as the Buddha did. Morality helps us cultivate virtues (such as patience, joy, forgiveness and love) in our hearts. 

In one episode of his life, Christ was criticised by the Pharisees for breaking the ancient fathers’ ceremonial tradition of washing hands before eating. 

Jesus replied that whatever enters into a man from the outside (food) cannot defile him because they do not enter the heart but into his stomach and out into the sewer. 

But what comes out of a man’s heart defiles a man. From the hearts of men come evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, envy, pride and foolishness. 

Jesus was pointing to us that the crucial thing is to cultivate goodness in our hearts instead of placing our attention on rites and rituals only.

Due to the evil that can emerge from the hearts of men, Jesus taught those who listened not to commit murder, steal, adultery, lie or swear. He encouraged us to love, instead of hate our enemies. 

Similarly, the Buddha taught lay Buddhists not to kill, steal, lie, commit adultery, and not to dull our faculties with intoxicants. It seems to me (personal opinion) that these two great teachers are teaching the laws of nature that apply to everyone, regardless of religion.

Although these moral precepts seem easy on the surface to follow, they are not. We often see the faults in others instead of our faults. One of the famous quotes from Christ, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” 

Easier to see others’ faults than our own

Jesus was right to say we are eager to see the trivial faults in others while ignoring our massive shortcomings. We often jump to hasty judgments based on our projections. 

Recently, my sister told me that she is cutting down to two meals a day to lose weight. But she still drank protein to stave off hunger. I asked her why she was consuming protein shakes as I thought it is for vegans and those who are weightlifting. She said protein shakes contain 200 calories as opposed to 500 calories from a meal.

I told her that’s still three meals a day and commented that I too took two meals a day but without any meal replacement. She quickly jumped to a conclusion and said, “This is not a competition.” I was surprised as I did not make the comment to compete but rather to clarify that two meals a day meant no meal replacements (if she wanted to lose weight). 

I cannot say that I have not projected my habitual thoughts onto others.

I often make baseless assumptions and have annoyed many people. One of the many assumptions I make is that no one ever listens to what I say and I also assume I know what others are thinking. 

The list of prideful assumptions I make about others is too long to mention here.

Often, we enjoy judging whether others are keeping their morality well instead of perfecting our virtues. Doing this grows our pride instead of virtue.

Human laws do not necessarily follow nature

We look for ways to benefit ourselves in this world and are often encouraged by others. In a recent conversation, a friend said that it is not wrong if she were to take money from the ATM if the person before her forgets to take the money. 

In her view, she is not stealing but merely taking. I would have agreed with her in the past. As a practising Buddhist today, I told her that is stealing because she is aware of taking another’s possession.

I have understood adhering to the precepts as laid out by the Buddha and Christ is for our well-being. It is because natural laws exist and we are not doing it to please the founders of religions. 

Ayya Khema, a late prominent German Buddhist nun asked her students, “What is natural?” She said we often look for natural and organic food. But aren’t we a part of nature as well? We cannot escape the natural laws of birth, decay and death. 

Emotionally, we are also constrained by nature’s laws because when we become extreme in either sadness or happiness, misery follows. We understand that sadness can become depression. Extreme happiness can also bring on a heart attack.

We often praise the intelligence of someone who can lie to get what s/he wants. We are also in awe when someone can cheat the system as featured in movies like Ocean Eleven to self-righteous murders in numerous superhero films. 

Virtues are heroic acts

We admire heroes who save the world. But if we were to closely examine popular violent/action films, to the number of wars fought in our history, the heroes are as responsible as the villains for causing calamities. 

Growing virtues in our hearts is an act of self-denial as opposed to self-aggrandisation. We are always looking for opportunities to grow our pride by increasing our education, wealth, network and possessions.

I am not saying it is wrong to educate or upgrade ourselves in our lives, but rather, we look outwards to grow our pride more than looking inwards to examine our hearts.

Virtues are heroic acts because we need to have the courage to deny the unskillful qualities in our hearts. 

For example, someone who is impatient seldom thinks s/he is wrong and wants to get things done quickly their way. This can cause anger in himself/herself and in those around them.

Being impatient and self-righteous can make it hard to listen to differing opinions and not argue with another. By being patient, we can avoid arguments with another, and reduce the chances of getting angry. By taming our unvirtuous heart, we can become happier and as a result, reduce suffering for ourselves and others.

Conquering our bad habits and cultivating virtue is a heroic act because it is so hard to recognise and admit to our faults as opposed to blaming others for not accepting our views. Virtues are for our well-being and also do not cause harm to others. This is how we can love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

The purpose of developing virtues

The Buddha said that it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell to practice virtues.1 While alive, virtues can bring joy and make life easier for us. As we do not create suffering for others, they do not cause us much trouble. 

If upon death, we discover heaven and hell do exist, we are safe because having virtues in our hearts is the way to heaven. Cultivating virtues is like buying insurance for the present life and also the afterlife if we are unsure of the existence of heaven and hell.

In Christianity, the existence of heaven and hell is highly emphasised. Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal; lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, your heart will also be.”

Jesus clearly tells us virtues in the heart is a timeless treasure compared to our temporary material possessions. 

Holidays like Christmas, Good Friday and Vesak Day are not just holidays to take a break and be with loved ones but for us to remember the teachings of these two great teachers, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.

Note:

1. Sutta MN 60: “Even if we didn’t speak of the next world, and there weren’t the true statement of those venerable contemplatives & brahmans, this venerable person is still praised in the here-&-now by the observant as a person of good habits & right view”


Wise Steps :

  • We can remember the virtues of patience, forgiveness and love by recollecting Jesus carrying the cross when carrying our own crosses (suffering)
  • Before you criticise another, whether commenting on a politician, celebrity or friend, look at the speck in your eyes.
  • Spend time recollecting your heart every day. Is there anything you have said or done that has made your heart uneasy such as criticising a friend? If you can do something to unburden your heart, do it the next day. If the deed cannot be undone, forgive yourself and those around you to lighten your heart.
“I waited for a 3-month period to get tested.”: How the Dhamma saved me as I went through the darkness of sexual assault and suicide ideation.

“I waited for a 3-month period to get tested.”: How the Dhamma saved me as I went through the darkness of sexual assault and suicide ideation.

TW: This article contains content about sexual assault and suicide ideation.

TLDR: Taking refuge in the triple gem can guide us to safety. To be at peace at whatever hardships life may throw at us. While sharing metta to ourselves might be the hardest, it is necessary for us to heal and grow over our wounds.

Poem of contemplation: 

Knowing I’m not perfect

Whatever that can be suffered, I have endured.

Life oh life

Have you had enough?

Are you satisfied?

Don’t you find yourself annoying?

Always testing my tolerance

Why is it so tough?

I have never asked for happiness 

Neither do I expect a miracle

I just hope some nights

I’m able to have some peace and contentment 

And some hope to go through the next day

I’ve never cried because of my self-pity

neither do I expect a happy ending

I don’t even cry to make myself feel better

Guilts are redundant

It won’t change into happy endings

I’m not a greedy person

I’ve never asked for more than I needed

I have already surrendered to pain or sorrows

I will not reciprocate the phenomenon that life promises

I’ve always disdained the result

only ask for the consequences

Ending myself won’t get me anywhere either

I will not feel sad for what I never once had

I just ask for one night where

I can be more hopeful

And be left alone

Where Dhamma is by my side

Drowning

If I wanted to drown myself in the sea, I would, but ever since I took refuge in the triple gems, after all these struggles and all the silence through these years, I simply don’t want to do that anymore. 

It’s hard to breathe even when I’m not drowning, but I have enough of it now, I want to live, I want to breathe harder and I want to do something meaningful in this life and I will walk away from the sea to climb up the mountain. Any darkness, any uncertainty however fluid and however dangerous, the triple gems will lead me and take me in hand.

The beginning of physical & mental pain 

Something is not right. 

I woke up with pains in my butt, anally. I remember last night, I was invited to a house party and with a few drinks, I was feeling dizzy. Something was in my drink, but it was too late. I’m so lost, confused and can’t wrap my head around what had happened. 

I got dressed immediately, saw a few men asleep on the floor but I ignored them, and rushed for the door. That was 7 years ago, I never told anyone what had happened until recently. 

I put on a brave front, pretending nothing happened but in my heart, I blamed myself. 

I felt ashamed and responsible for not taking better care of myself. 

There are so many possible scenarios I could think of why this shouldn’t have happened to me if I… 

I could have also exposed the ones who did this to me, I swear with my character, I would have made them pay for it, but time wasn’t on my side, I have to catch a flight the next day. 

As I’m a foreigner travelling, I figure how complicated legally I will have to get involved. I anticipate the overwhelming emotions I’ve to undertake, that scares me and I’m a coward I know but I felt like I wasn’t ready to confront them. 

I was also distraught and feeling disgusted, I wanted to leave that godforsaken country as soon as possible. 

The questions that flood my head

Why me? Why? I have asked myself many times. I have enough of asking, and what happened has happened. 

I’ve stopped asking questions that don’t come with any answers. There is only one thing I’m sure of, knowing what I should do next and how I respond to this adversary. 

I need to get a blood test. It takes time for the body to make antibodies after it is exposed to HIV, and different people make antibodies at different rates. 

The window period for antibody tests is between 3 weeks and 3 months. Up to 95% of people will have antibodies after 6 weeks, and 99% of people will have antibodies after 3 months. 

I waited for a 3-month period to get tested. That probably is the darkest time of my life. That anxiety that keeps building up is killing me. Like a prisoner in the dark cell, trapped within the 4 walls. 

Trying to scream but no sounds can come out. 

When I closed my eyes, I saw the ugliness and bad things that had happened. My pain and sufferings, who can I relate to? All this is just a battle I’m fighting inside myself. Regardless of winning or losing, it all seems ridiculous. 

The test

The day had arrived. Here I was at the clinic waiting nervously, a volunteer working in the Anonymous HIV Test Clinic had taken my blood for testing. 

I know it is not over yet, emotionally I’m still haunted by what those bastards had done to me, but I also know it could get much worse. 

Everyone said being positive is a good thing, but for me, being positive is the worst thing that could ever happen to me. 

It’s like you got hit by the bus and a motorcycle ran over after. I went into a room and this kind gentleman was trying to break the news to me. My nightmare becomes real, the blood test result was out. 

I’m HIV positive. 

I’ve prepared for this to happen, yet I still can’t believe it when it happens, but there is a voice in me that says keep it together. 

Even in my darkest moments, when I felt the most challenged, I often found a glimpse of light that can warm my heart from the Buddha’s teaching

Facing my ugly pain & suffering head-on is the fundamental Buddhist way that has always kept me going. I must find a way to cope with it. 

The Healing Begins

Regardless of how I have suffered, the happiest thing I have ever come across is the teachings of the Buddha. 

Silly me, coping doesn’t resolve my pain; it merely distracts me from it. The first step to healing my pain is to stop coping with it and start being with it. It hurts, but it needs to be acknowledged. 

The more I run away, the further I get from acknowledging my pain and misery. This is the Buddha’s first noble truth: acknowledging the suffering. Why haven’t I learnt it, especially since I know it by heart? How can I heal the sorrow that I haven’t identified? Similarly, the Buddha taught me that through acknowledging one’s suffering, they open the door to alleviating it.

By three things the wise person may be known. What three? He sees a shortcoming as it is. When he sees it, he tries to correct it. And when another acknowledges a shortcoming, the wise one forgives it as he should. ~ Anguttara Nikaya I – 103

Forgiveness, that is what I need. Once I’ve acknowledged my pain, I need to generate more loving-kindness for myself so I can forgive myself. 

It is not possible to have sunshine without the rain, smiles with no tears. By the laws of the universe, there is an inevitable polarity we must all experience.  

How can I possibly forgive myself if I don’t forgive others first?

I stop focusing on what others have done to me unfairly gradually and try to accept it. Forgive them, I find myself with less hatred.

 When I accept other people’s mistakes repeatedly, I realize that I can also accept my own mistakes in the end. Since forgiveness starts within me, it is imperative to start the process of forgiveness from the inside out.

Acceptance

When we do something wrong, we have two choices: change the situation or accept it. In Buddhism, this is referred to as right action and right view under the teachings of Noble Eightfold Path. If there is something we can do to change the course of things, we should take the right action or practice till we get it right. However, if we can’t change anything, we should practice the right view, which means looking at the situation in a new light.

Non-acceptance often leads to feelings of guilt and frustration. We should accept that we are human beings with emotions that often lead us to ignorance. 

It is because of our ignorance that we might commit mistakes. But, if we shed light on our ignorance, we can transform it into wisdom and learn from our mistakes.

Sending loving kindness to myself

In the past, when I dwell on the past and constantly analyze a situation, I might somehow be able to overcome it. Sadly, It never works that way, instead, it chained me to the past with torments. The past is gone, but my mind keeps it alive. 

Mentally revisiting a situation repeatedly only causes more suffering — it doesn’t solve anything. Instead of holding on to these dark memories, meditation is a way to look inward and get to know what’s happening inside my mind. 

By seeing through the self-generated feelings and emotions, I learn to let go.

I began meditating, as best as I could and doing it daily. Loving-kindness meditation is one of the meditations I practice often. 

Keeping my eyes closed, thinking of a person close to me who loves me very much. It could be someone from the past or the present; someone still alive or who has passed; it could be the Buddha or my mother. Imagine that person standing by my side, sending me their love, sending me wishes for my wellness, for my health and happiness. I could feel the kindness and warmth coming to me closely. That gives me the strength to carry on living. 

May I live with ease, may I be happy,

may I be free from pain. 

May I live with ease, may I be happy, 

may I be free from pain. 

May I live with ease, may I be happy, 

may I be free from pain.

Acknowledge the sufferings, accept it, forgive myself, and most of all, send loving-kindness to myself and let the Buddha’s Dhamma guide me. 

No matter how many years I have suffered, the best thing that happens to me is I have Dhamma by my side.

Handful of Leaves and Kusala Mag are in collaboration to share Inspiring stories sprinkled with Buddhist wisdom. Check out the latest edition!


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Ep 3: When does doing good become bad? (Ft Sylvia Bay)

Ep 3: When does doing good become bad? (Ft Sylvia Bay)

Kai Xin  00:07

Are you a good person?

Well, if you’re listening to this podcast, I’m pretty sure you ask yourself this question sometimes, because you’re constantly trying to find ways to develop yourself to become a better person. And doing good for others and yourself is such a big part of this self improvement journey, however, is doing good, always good.

Who exactly defines what is good or what’s bad? What is right or what is wrong?

So we have the king of fried rice to king of fruits, the king of the jungle. What about the king of goodness?

Hi, my name is Kai Xin. I’m your host for this episode. And you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcasts, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.

You know, the path to happiness isn’t a smooth one. We will definitely meet with setbacks and challenges around work, relationships, mental well being and so much more. In this podcast, we discuss these realities of life and explore how we can bring the Dharma 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. Please subscribe if you haven’t already done so.

In this very episode, we have a chat with Sister Sylvia Bay. She graduated with a BA Honours first class in Buddhist studies from the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka in 2000. Sister Sylvia isn’t just academically smart. Since 1992. She has been dedicating her life to the practice and serving the community, she has been doing so by dedicating time outside of work to give Dhamma talks and lectures, and practical application of the Dharma is always heavily emphasised in all her sharings.

Today, she’ll be opening our minds on a topic of what it means to be good. And the tipping point when doing good, turns bad. Trust me, it’s filled with so much insights. I personally had a lot of ‘aha’ moments. And I encourage you to take a notepad and start taking down some notes. Now let’s begin.

Kai Xin  02:22

Hi, Sister Sylvia, good to have you here.

Sylvia  02:24

Nice to see you too.

Kai Xin  02:27

Yes, it’s really good to have you because today we are exploring something that it’s quiet, I would say, mind-boggling because you know, in Buddhism, we talk about doing good, avoiding evil, and purifying the mind. What I think is mind-boggling is the definition of good. Because you know, people sometimes will justify their actions to say, Oh, I do this because, but it’s a little grey as well. There are a lot of questions that I have for you to kind of explore that grey area. Perhaps we can start off with, what is your definition of good.

Sylvia  03:07

This thing about good? People kind of know, right? I mean, we all have all of us, any of us, even the little ones will have some sense of what’s good and bad. And typically, if you ask people, why is this good? Or why is this bad? It will boil it down to a few things. One, it has to do with feelings. Meaning, if you feel really unpleasant, and because it’s so unpleasant, your instinct is to react to that in a way that will cause pain or more problems for yourself or for others. And because you do that, it will create pain, or, or suffering for yourself or others. Generally, it’s like that. 

If you think about it, let’s say I get angry. Anger is an unpleasant sensation. When one feels anger, one will say something or do something that allows one to express that anger. And in saying or in doing, the odds are, it hurts someone, whether it’s yourself or another. And when you step back, you who were angry, when you look at the episode, there will arise a sense of maybe conscience, maybe a bit of shame, a sense that maybe I shouldn’t have done that. There’s regret, and there is remorse. Anybody in a similar situation is likely to say that’s bad. That’s not good.

Conversely, suppose let’s say, you were very kind, you saw people hurting, you came forward, you help. And then you turn away and say, ‘That’s a very nice feeling. I really feel happy I feel light there’s pleasant sensation.’

And then others observing that act, and will also say, ‘Oh, that’s a very good act’.’ Because they also feel pleasure, they feel the pleasant sensation. One thing about what’s good or bad has to do with feeling. Which is why for many people, there is generally some common instinctive appreciation of the act as good or bad. We understand the feeling involved in that. But it’s not all about feelings. We know that. For instance, sometimes you feel unpleasant. Like righteousness, right? Someone gets bullied. And then you look at it, and you go, it’s not nice. The sense that this is wrong, there is unpleasant, but you know, when you feel sorry for someone that’s considered good. But the feeling is not good.

Kai Xin  06:26

I hear a couple of things. So one is you yourself must feel pleasant.

Or it has to stem from wanting to do good, then there must be some form of feedback as well. Right? So other people are approving of your act.

However, I’m just thinking of a very grey situation where maybe somebody is bullied. And I feel righteous that this person mustn’t do this. Then, I act on my feelings, and it might either be scolding that person or maybe I might retaliate, and people around me might say, ‘Wow, you’re so brave to do that.’. Then is it still good?

Sylvia  07:08

Now we go back and we unpack this one. Okay. Let’s unpack this, when you feel sorry for the victim, at that point, what arises is empathy. Empathy is the condition that allows you to continue doing something good for another. Empathy is a good thing. But because our feelings and actions proliferate fast, they react fast, and they proliferate fast. The result is anger will come up, you basically put it righteousness. Righteousness is anger, a sense of justice, which is anger, okay? When that comes up, what is good is now being stained. What would have been good, has now become somewhat stained by our sense of righteous anger. And that’s why there is also that sensation of unpleasantness that because it’s unpleasant, you want to react, whether to score or to stand up for somebody you want to react, and the words that come out is intended to hurt, to beat the other bully. So all this is downstream.

Now, what was initially would have been a good reaction has now become not good. Because now we are experiencing a lot of wanting a lot, which will create more pain for yourself and for others.  If you ask me, what would I consider good, is a speech or an act that will lead to benefits and happiness for yourself and for others. It’s always for Buddhism, it’s always for yourself, and for others, it’s not a zero-sum game. It has to be when there is the raising of common interest, benefit, happiness, welfare. In my mind, that’s what I would consider is good and correct.  Anything that leads to pain suffering, it will cause hurt for people. It would diminish interest, welfare, happiness, those are considered bad. No good. It’s actually not difficult. It’s pretty straightforward.

How do you know what is good or not, you will experience it through the feelings, for sure you will have the sensation. I’ll give you an example. Suppose let’s say you lost somebody, someone very close to you. And there is a part in you that griefs. No one would say that’s bad per se because it doesn’t hurt another person. But it’s pain, right? You lost somebody, you miss the person, you experience pain. The fact that you experienced pain means there is attachment. There is longing, attachment, longing, it’s always a condition, for problems now and in the future. And in that sense, any form of craving, or wanting or longing, any form of it is not good, unskilful (Akusala). Any form of it.

Kai Xin  11:08

Let’s go back to what you said about any speech or action should be for the welfare and benefit of others and yourself. How do you measure that benefit? Because I’ll give you an example. I think in today’s day and age, there are a lot of activists, you know, small groups wanting to fight for social justice, or environmentalism. And it’s always, there are two sides to a coin, right, somebody feels that it’s valuable to be a vegetarian. And some people feel like no, it’s not really to my advantage and my welfare, and it’s such an inconvenient thing. And I don’t feel happy about it as well. So then it becomes like a dichotomy, or in the process of wanting to do good, perhaps somebody else’s happiness is being compromised?.

Isn’t it vary based on what an individual would value? Then is that something which everyone would agree upon? Who defines the benefit, and who defines what’s good? Isn’t it very subjective?

Sylvia  12:21

Then, of course, there’s some degree of subjectivity. That is true, in fact, in how each person view the world, it’s subjective, in anything that you undertake. If someone perceives that his interest is infringed on that his happiness is compromised, he will perceive you as not nice to him not doing good by him. That is true. There are many causes that people get themselves into that they get very righteous, they are very active and very enthusiastic. But you think a bit harder, it’s questionable about the end results of the causes. That is true, I acknowledged and agreed to that.

Let’s think back about what makes it right and what makes it wrong. The Buddha talked about intention, and how it’s done, and then the results. There are three parts to it.

If your intention was wholesome (Kusala), and you really wish for a common good and everyone can benefit from it. If that’s your intention, then you will experience that it is pleasant. If your intention is pure, your experience will be pleasant. If you say the cause is pure, like protecting life, it is pure, but the way you’re expressing your feeling about it is unpleasant or painful, Then at that point, whatever you say, your motivation is still unwholesome.

I’ll give you an example, let’s say pro-life, people who fight for pro-life and then some of them get so angry, right? That you respect life is pure.  But because you’re angry with others who don’t share your views, and therefore, at the point when you feel pain, that motivation has already turned into unwholesome. You just didn’t realise it.

Do you understand? It’s the same thing when you campaign for the weather and climate. You’re doing that because you understand the science that men are paying for the sins of the past. That now you’re angry that there’s a bunch of people who are irresponsible and unreasonable ,and they really don’t care. There is anger. Your cause is maybe good. But because your mind is now narrowly focused on the selfishness of others. The cause is still wholesome, but your motivations are no longer wholesome.

Kai Xin  18:24

Yeah, that’s such a good point. Because I also personally would notice, perhaps there’s some form of attachment, wanting other people to kind of fit my own ideals. And there’s a lot of judging in the process as well. And it’s a valuable point that you pointed out that it doesn’t matter how people judge you because, in my mind, it’s very difficult to please everybody, right, my intention might be pure. And I might go through the motion and execute my pure intention in a skilful way. But if the other person is going to be angry about it, then do I have to feel the need and the sense to fit that person’s ideal, then it will just be a very stressful life to me.

Sylvia  19:09

Then you’re in the world, really. It’s in action reaction.

You know, in some countries, in some regional countries really good. They you see pots and pots of water that they left the leaf outside their house for travellers to be able to drink. It’s very pure. It’s like, I want to be timing and take a drink if you need one. And that’s correct or not. You put the you put the item on the table, and you walk away without because then you’re saying I’m not invested in the outcome. I’m only invested in the purity of the act, but the outcome of it, I’ve walked away from it. I don’t want to hang around and be really caught up in why is it not working.

Kai Xin  19:58

Speaking of that, when you talk about not being invested in the outcome?

Personally, I think it’s very difficult because the outcome is the most tangible. People can’t read minds. And you know, when we talk about being good, we have certain guidelines to follow, don’t lie, don’t kill. And that is the experience also in the process, like, oh, perhaps I have accidentally told a white lie, or I’ve like intentionally out of habit. And then I go into this self guilt kind of mode. How do you reconcile because the outcome is bad, right? I’m not supposed to lie. But then I’m judging my intention.

How does one not be invested in the outcome?

Sylvia  20:47

You know, we’re talking about campaigning for the climate. And that’s a cause, a social cause, a social set of conditions that you’re trying to create what you were referring to separately, it’s about precepts, not telling lies and not killing, not stealing, meaning, the choices you make at a very narrow tactical level.

The other one is you’re talking about a goal. In its most strategic things, it’s like, how do I live my life? How do I raise children, that’s a goal. In that goal, there are many steps and many acts. Many things that you do those minute ones is a separate thing.

Can we take them separately?

Specifically on this issue about precepts, keeping to precepts, that you’re feeling bad because you didn’t do it right. I believe if you understand why the rules are crafted like this, meaning what is the larger objective, then you know how to calibrate your life, calibrate the choices, and you don’t feel bad when you are calibrating.  I’ll give you an example.  Let’s take lying. The reason is that the consequences on our mind if you generate shades to explain reality, and your shades do not directly correlate with reality, you’re shading the truth, right? When you do that, your mind starts to store your version. In the process of all these narratives being stored in all the different shades, not absolute truth, you’re murky with the truth.The point will come when the mind can’t quite tell, accurately, what is the fact and what is not? The perception of reality of fuzziness, becomes very fuzzy, at some point becomes your reality.

For anyone who’s practising seeing reality as is, this condition of the mind really will be a huge obstacle to practice – to realising the true nature of the mind and be able to kind of shrug away the negative instincts and become a good, wholesome, wise, clear person. Your effort to become all these is going to be seriously undermined by fuzziness. That’s one part of it. 

The second part of it is regarding your reputation in society. This is the part that not many people talk about because they don’t realise they may or may not realise that this is an important point, which is something that Buddha had talked about, when someone does not tell absolute truth. It will hit his credibility, social standing, his credibility, his words will not be taken seriously. In assembly, this is how it was set in the Sutta. You think about it, you shade truths, people find out about your shading because truth has a certain way of kind of emerging, right? Then at some point, you have a reputation, she’s very loose with truths. Now you have a problem. You have a credibility problem.

For yourself internally, you can’t quite tell what’s real. For the world, externally. Your words are questionable. If people say, is this a lie? If you’re asking me that, the odds are, you know, you’re being loose with the fact, then you decide do you want to proceed with the elusiveness knowing that at some point, it may cost you your ability to see things clearly. And why do you want to do that?

We uphold these precepts, whether it’s about the truth, whether it’s about not being greedy, and taking things not given to you, whether it’s about honesty in relationship, etc. It really is because all these choices, leaves serious imprint on the mind, it can change your character, it can affect your relationship with people, it can cost you what I call it, social costs, your standing in society, and so on. Those are the practical ones.

Now comes the bigger issue, the most strategic one — the goal, the end goal, the big cause. How can one not be invested in the outcome. If you’re invested with any outcome, there is in you, a clinging, a craving, a desire. It’s not right or wrong, you must know that the more invested you are, the more stress you will feel, the more pain you will experience, the more disappointment is likely to come your way. The more intense your attachment, the more you must be prepared to accept disappointment. That’s the cost.

Kai Xin  26:42

I’m hearing a lot of common thread in your points that the attachment to the desire, having anger, these are considered unwholesome. But does that mean that we shouldn’t have desire at all? How about the desire to be good? At what point would we know that the desire for good will actually turn sour and become bad?

Sylvia  27:06

Desire for good is good only because it leads to good.

Desiring to be good means it’s the start point of downstream choices that will lead to an outcome where you experienced peace, calm, contentment, the cessation of angst, that’s why the desire for good is good. Any other forms of desire that leads to an increase in agitation, increase in pain and suffering, then those desires are unconducive for your welfare too for some it sounds “Oh this is so tall order” for some people. You just have to bring it down to your personal level, bring it home to your daily experience practice. If you say I wish to be a good person, I want to learn to be a good person. 

What does it mean downstream? I will read up on what makes a good person, I listen to talks, I watch shows and I try and model behaviour to learn from others. And if you’re very serious about wanting to be a good, person, you will build upon your sense of guilt when you are not good, you feel shame when someone tells you “This is not nice” you feel shame. You’re basically quietly gently generating the conditions that will keep you on track to be a good person who causes nobodies harm and create pain for others, when people in your space they enjoy being with you, okay?

Now let’s take it differently. Let’s say I now desire to push for vaccination for everybody. Can you see the difference? You get agitated. You go ahead. Send out paper flyers, go and hound somebody. What is wrong with you? Why are you not vaccinated? Let me explain to you. As you talk you get more agitated, the fellow listeners get more agitated, the whole world around you get more agitated.

Kai Xin  29:34

What I’m hearing is that there are many causes. They really are a means to an end. Like I want to keep my precepts, or I want people to take the vaccine at the end of the day. It’s really about the welfare, the harmony or feeling peace. I will use my mental state as a yardstick. But you also mentioned shame and guilt. In the Buddhist space, we talk about Hiri Ottapa, this sense of moral shame. And then I’m also thinking on behalf of the listener and the viewers, isn’t shame and guilt an unpleasant feeling?

Some people might think, ‘I don’t think I am moral enough ,or I’m good enough to even be on the path.’ Or I cannot, you know, it’s too hard. I cannot meditate because I’m  always not very peaceful. I feel like shame, it is very unpleasant. Is shame and guilt or unpleasant feeling part of the process, we have to be patient with it and see the peace, and again how do we tell it’s so such a fine balance?

Sylvia  30:35

Okay, Hiri Ottapa, Hiri is moral conscience, this is internal, you like it or not it’s there it’s built into all humans the condition, and we know that it’s built in because studies have shown that psychopaths don’t have, that it cannot be turned on that part of the brain doesn’t light up. It actually lights up, okay? And what the Buddha has taught is use this natural state to protect yourself in your practice, it’s considered a good thing because it’s what will keep you from undertaking actions that will cause you problems in your cultivation exercise. For instance, you know these precepts, don’t lie, don’t take what’s not given. If you have conscience, you don’t need this precept to tell you that you cannot do that, you cannot kill. You just don’t want to do it because you know when you do it you feel bad. Then on days when you’re very angry, very, very angry. You want to smack someone. But that part of you that holds you back is this conscience it is very strong, you are reminded that there is a cost to undertaking an action that costs another pain, you will be reminded so that you are taught never to do it. Not that you will never do it. But if you’re constantly reminded, don’t do it because you cannot sleep at night. Then when you’re confronted that situation a new situation, but it’s similar you will not do it because you remember, it will cost you sleepless night. That’s conscience. 

Shame (Ottapa) is this sense of a need for communal approval and I believe that this is also in a DNA this part about needing the approval of others, right, I believe this I have no proof. I believe this is also part of our DNA because possibly built in during the time when men was living in a very dangerous world, and the only way he can survive this way he has others like him, and together they help each other in order to be able to continue staying with others, then you must conform to a certain behaviour that communally they agreed to. Your sense of shame is cultural, it is a condition or thought. It changes over time, but it’s really because there is a constant internally, you want to be accepted. And the manifestation of that is you will mirror behaviour, you will follow what people do, you will learn where all the OB markers (“out of bounds marker”) are so that you are accepted within this community. These two pillars for practice, right? It is to help the individual navigate and stay on the path that will give him a sense of peace, when you undertake an action that straight out of these two OB markers, you will have no sense of peace, they are what I call the hard parents smack you then you “I will not transgress” because they are hard.

Initially, it is difficult. But over time you can appreciate it, you can appreciate these two, if you are generally okay. And these two in your life, hold you to a wholesome path. You’re okay with it. Overtime, you feel very peaceful, then you are very grateful for these two that had kept you in check initially. 

Conversely, you’re very angry person then this two you will resent then you act on your anger, you get more frustrated. These two fellows now come very hard at you. And they’re trying very hard to hold you in check. But if you refuse to at some point, you drop these two. “Heck I am already so bad, who cares” You will drop your conscience ,you will not allow people to shame you right, now you’re forcefully removing these two pillars, you have no sense of shame, you have no sense of guilt, you will continue to do whatever you want. Creating more pain, discomfort, no peace of mind, more things for yourself. Now you’re spiralling into the negative. It’s very hard to attain these things because really they are conditional.

And you just basically pick a point in this circle, that chicken and egg story. You pick the chicken, and you work from there ,and it leads back to the egg and lead back to the chicken. It sounds like that. Unfortunately, that’s why you just got to start somewhere.

Kai Xin  36:07

I know because some people would say I need to be peaceful first, and then I do all this, you know, good causes, but some people say okay, I do causes first and then eventually I will feel more at peace right then that’s where the chicken and egg comes.

I think it does require some kind of patience, isn’t it? To kind of go through that bump to say, I’ve tried so hard, but I’m constantly getting it wrong. And then dealing with the guilt that is very intense. How would you then advise people to be a bit more patient when they’re trying to be good?

Sylvia  36:41

I always try to start on the side choice because that part you can control. I mean, to the degree that you can,  “Do I scold or do I not scold?” “Do I speak out, or do I not speak out? ” At that point you still have a choice. The condition of your mind at that point you didn’t choose. I mean you get angrier and angrier and angrier, it just happens. You didn’t choose to be angry. But once the anger starts, you can choose to react or not. If you have clarity, that if you give into anger today thinking that it’s temporary venting. Now it doesn’t work like that, for whatever choices that you make, it would leave some kind of an imprint on the mind leaving similar imprints for stretches, means those imprint very hard to erase. 

That’s why we must start somewhere if you want to overcome anger and become a more peaceful person, you must make a determination to say anger hurts, it causes problems for physical form for the body for the mind, it causes problem, it leaves lingering effects. Therefore, I will learn to moderate my anger, I will learn to tame it, make the determination that you must get started, every time anger peaks its head out, you must smack it back and say, I will not give it to you. I will now bring up friendliness, you will choke on trying to cough up friendliness initially. But if you link these two, I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness. At some point, that balance will tilt, it becomes easier to bring up friendliness than anger. And it all started with you saying you know what I have enough of this anger, I would get started.

Kai Xin  39:02

Does that require some sense of wisdom and internalisation; otherwise it can sound quite wilful, right? Like we are just clenching our teeth and say, I will be friendly, I’ll be friendly. I mean, speaking for my own experience, when I started walking on the path, I was picking myself up a lot. And there’s a lot of agitation in the process. And sometimes I kind of just want to throw in the towel, you know, and it’s like, how do I do it?

How do people do it? Why are they so nice, you know? How do you balance striving to be good? But then at the same time not being too wilful and just like you know just accepting things as they are and have that restful state.

Sylvia  39:46

You know, in the method right in the training for lay people I always talk about four mental states that you need, sometimes the Buddha mentioned five, but sometimes he mentioned four. You have faith, morality, generosity, wisdom, and you notice wisdom tags number five, four or five. If it’s five, it will be faith. I use the Pali word Saddha which means having confidence, conviction having faith in the teaching the teacher and so on, then morality, and then he introduced one more Sota which is learning the doctrine. I repeat, it can be four, or it can be five mental states. When it is 4 mental states, it is faith, morality, generosity, wisdom. If he talks about 5 mental states the third one, faith, morality, learning, generosity, wisdom. The extra one is learning.  Now, why these five mental states right, when you have faith, faith in itself is a pleasant sensation. Very powerful, very pleasant. If you have faith in Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha.

The Buddha, his teaching, the monastic practice. If you have faith, people carrying that mental state will experience a pleasant sensation will be pleasant. Will not be painful. Then you say, but sometime faith is painful. Nope. Faith is not painful. What is painful is something else. Depending on the individual got to figure out what it is, but it’s not faith, faith in itself is very pleasant.

You believe it or not, if you don’t believe me, you just sit down there at where you are. You say to yourself  “I have faith, I believe” and you just pause awhile to look at the mind. You will see the mind as either neutral or for those of you with very strong faith you will immediately experience a surging joy. That’s how powerful it can be. This is not difficult to polish for a Buddhist, every day, you go before the Buddha statue, the Buddha Rupa, you take a bow, and you say to yourself, I have faith in you. You just have to do this every day, momentarily, you will experience joy. And this joy, this faith, is very important. It’s very inspiring, motivating. It keeps people saying, I know it’s difficult, but because I have faith I can continue.

Kai Xin  42:59

Would it be different if we turn it inwards? I mean, for those who are non-religious, can they say, ‘I have faith in myself to be a good person or to be happier, to be more at peace.’? Would that be a difference?

Sylvia  43:14

There is a slight difference. Because if for the longest time you were not exactly the nicest person, you say, I have faith in myself to be a nice person. Great. At that point, you enjoy a little “Yes, I do feel good about this”. Then you don’t know how, if you don’t know how, you only say I can do it, but you don’t know how to do it. At some point, disappointment, doubt, will start.

That is why you need other mental states. Faith is step one, right?

And step two is morality then generosity, then wisdom, right? These are the mental states, they work collectively, to inspire you and keep you on the practice. You take away the other mental states, and you have only faith, nothing else. Then this faith is not strong. It’s not sitting on some foundation. It is where that individual say, I believe in Buddha, then when life hits you all kinds of curveballs and you at some point, your faith will wear thin for sure because you have nothing beyond faith.

If you have faith, and you are a good person, so morality right, I’m a good person I learned to do good avoid evil etc. Then I practice generosity, and generosity is another lecture by itself. But let’s say that you practice generosity, giving is just one small part of generosity, generosity of spirit, generosity of its forgiveness, generosity, embracing another’s generosity, giving up your views and your biases is generosity, etc. You have generosity and then you have wisdom.

Wisdom is understanding the transient nature of life. Understanding mortality, so to speak, learning not to hold on to things because holding on will only give you pain, so all these as a whole there is yet another series of talks there. But all these understanding of the nature of mind, all these put together that then you have the relevant tools that will keep you anchored to being good doing good. You are only occasionally true. Because you’re overwhelmed by emotions, and then you tripped a bit. But you basically hop on to the train again, and you are okay. On this wholesome adventure, you’ll be fine.

Kai Xin  46:25

Do you have a mantra or a sentence to help people who are too harsh on themselves?

Sylvia  46:33

You said earlier was correct, patience. But having said that, I will be a bit careful here. Patience must not be used as an excuse. I’m patient, and therefore I can forgive myself anything. It should not be used as an excuse for laziness or for giving yourself a discount on the practice. Patience is to me it’s more like you moderate the harshness moderate part of you that is very judging that you hold yourself to very high standards, and you judge yourself to fall short of that standard that you set. And you tell yourself, it’s okay to moderate. Patience to me, is moderation. It’s accepting that there are some conditions that are hard to overcome. And you moderate expectations. And you at every step, when you do well, you tell yourself now, this is the correct thing to do. Well done, good job. You learn to pat yourself on the back so patience lead to this kind of practices.

Patience is powerful because if it sits on wisdom. Understand that, in our practice in our cultivation, the mental states are not held in isolation, they must work in conjunction with others. Which is why if you look at the Buddha’s teaching, very often they tell you about seven factors of enlightenment, or the five powers of the mind, or the four Iddhipada, superpower states of mind, etc. It’s always a few mental states, all of them are mental states. And all these mental states are always taught as a cluster. Because alone, it doesn’t work. You need a few to hold together a set of conditions conducive for practice, conducive for staying good. Why? Because you are overcoming habits and instincts, and habits and instincts have been formed through a millennium a long time, you cannot overcome these states overnight, can’t be done. When I said earlier about patience, moderation, lowering your bar and all those things, is in recognition that whoever you are, whatever you are, today has been form through millennium. If you don’t even remember all the conditions in the past that led to a takeaway. Set baseline that now, centuries later still surface, you don’t remember what was the condition. But now you got to bear with it. When you understand enough that who you are is the result of conditions from a long ago, therefore it needs time. To understand yourself better, you need time to learn to overcome or overwrite an earlier setting of your instincts, you need to overwrite the earliest software to create new software.

Kai Xin  50:29

So, it can’t just be a sit back and see what happens kind of patience, but it requires an active and deliberate effort to say I forgive, and now I’m acting with certain mental models or framework to be better. How do we know when it’s okay to give in to our desires, say if I have a stressful day at work, I know meditating will help me relieve stress. And it’s good for me. But I don’t have the mental capacity and energy to sit on the cushion. I would rather watch YouTube videos. And then again, the cycle repeats. Oh, guilt trip. ‘Why do I do this?’

Is it more helpful to say it’s okay for me to just indulge in sensual desires and pleasures for just one day until I have the capacity to be more spiritual again. How do you know when to give in to desires and when to not give in to desires?

Sylvia  51:44

No hard and fast rule about these things. It’s individual maturity. And this is what the Buddha had said that if you truly understand through direct knowledge and understanding, we truly understand impermanence meaning, mortality and the pain of birth, if you truly appreciate that and truly get it, that can generate its own momentum for not letting up on practice.

It’s true understanding and wisdom, that then you won’t cave in. The rest of us are not to that level of direct knowledge and understanding. In fact, for many of us, our embracing of the Dharma and the practice is abit of I want my cake and eat it. What do I mean, I experienced Dukkha periodically, I find it so frustrating, life is so Dukkha, I agree. Therefore, going to the Dharma, in anticipation that we practice, my experience of Dukkha diminishes. We go into Dharma to raise the pleasure quotient to reduce the Dukkha quotient.

And because of that, actually, we are still attached to pleasure, we have never really understood, we just want our cake and eat it. We want to enjoy sensual pleasure and life as we always do without the punishment. That sense of pain that comes about because we don’t understand dhamma. For most of us, we fall into this category.  And that is why in our practice, our so-called meditation, the putting time aside for meditation, right? It’s always lower on the list of things to do. Most of us are like that meditation, oh gosh, it’s like upstairs, my mind just going to be so boring. Because on the list of pleasurable things, meditation doesn’t usually rank really high. Meditation becomes like duty, which then adds on to the unpleasantness of it, and we equate practice with meditation, which is really jialat because that’s not true.

Practice is not meditation. Meditation is one part of the practice. If you have true wisdom, true insight, true understanding, you will never let up. Because if you don’t have true wisdom, true insight true understanding, then practice is just a list of things you want to do. And sometimes it’s higher (on the list) because you’re inspired. Sometimes it drops to rock bottom because on these games, the world beckons, it is just like that. 

Is there a right or wrong? There is no right or wrong, I would like to say right means: no press on full steam ahead! But we are laypeople. And laypeople means priorities a little different, and the priorities will start to change only with growing understanding and wisdom. The wisdom is what will cause you to reprioritise at some point because you now rank practice very highly. Because of that, your progress, your insight, your understanding, will take on a new momentum.

And then it will spin in that wholesome and very energetically in the Dhamma way by itself. It’s like you’re driving on the floor. Initially, you have all these road bumps, so you cannot go very far. But at some point, you have overcome the road bumps. And now the road is clear here. And you can speed up and how fast it takes for you to speed, depends on how fast you want to get there, how fast you set the condition in place. And how fast you want to set the condition in place depends on how much pain you are now seeing.

Kai Xin  56:23

What I understand from your explanation on wisdom is that when we truly internalise that, this is something that can be more sustainable than the fleeting pleasures, then it really just propels us there’s no sense of like willpower, I have to do it. It’s a chore. And that’s a very important quality, right? Because I also noticed that some people can feel very gung-ho at the start and say, ‘I want to meditate’. It’s all about clocking the number of hours of meditation. And of course, that’s just one part of the practice.

Or some would say, ‘oh, I am so good at keeping my precept. What is this other person doing? Why is he not living up to that particular moral standard?’

But that itself might lack wisdom, because it’s not so much about transcending Dukkha and it’s not so much about being more at peace and that then becomes like the yardstick isn’t it?

Wisdom is the essential mental quality to really help us be on the right track. And then circling back to where we started. In the process, when we have wisdom, we will naturally feel pleasant, when we’re doing a good act or doing a good cause, did I get it right?

Sylvia  57:45

Wisdom is a very deep mental state. And you can approach this from a different angle, when there is wisdom, there is understanding, understanding of the concepts taught by the Buddha. Correct understanding at a deeper level, when there is wisdom, there is not just understanding, but there is an ability to notice that in your daily life, you form a conclusion that correlate with the teaching. Oh, I can see this. This is what the Buddha meant when he said all these things, capture in this Sutta or this is what the Buddha meant. Wisdom is an enabler, it enables you to understand the teaching, be able to observe the phenomenon in daily life, in direct reflection of the teaching. And wisdom also enables you to make the right choices, it means the choices that will help you grow in understanding, be a more peaceful and calmer person, more content, more at ease.  Wisdom enables you to pick wisely, choose wisely. Focus your attention correctly, all gearing you towards realising the driving forces of your mind, how it works. And so you continue in daily life, you continue to do the thing that will enable you to be happier. 

Wisdom fundamentally, enables you to live happily, there is no unhappy, wise person. I mean, you can have bad conditions. But when there is wisdom, you don’t feel too bad about your experience. Not great. But it’s okay, I can live with this. Wisdom helps you to accept, and therefore you’re okay. Even though the conditions are bad, this person knows how to let go. He may not know how to articulate to you how he managed to let go but he knows how to. Buddha is just so brilliant. He captured it into a training formula, DIY for everyone. Buddha wisdom is superior to everyone else because he knows how to sum up the driving forces that leads to growth of wisdom. Therefore, growth of happiness.

Kai Xin  1:00:45

I have one last question to wrap up this episode. Talking about wisdom, do you have any actionable tips that the listeners can take away to grow in wisdom and happiness?

Sylvia  1:01:00

What is this wisdom that, I think, would really help is to constantly remind ourselves whatever is transient, whatever is impermanent, feeling perceiving from mental polishing or activities and so on so forth. For everyone, they last for a mere nanosecond. The state itself lasts for mere nanosecond grief, pain, anger, frustration, lalalala. Whatever it is, all that short in a snap of a finger, it’s over. The only time you really realise the meaning of this teaching, right? That in what is impermanent, it is painful. It’s when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness or someone you love is dead. But the reality is, it’s always a condition of life. It is a condition of life that we will all die. But you see, we will happily blindly roam through life completely oblivious, of what is an inevitable situation. In what is inevitable, we are oblivious. Aha! that’s our problem. Because of that, we have the delusion of control. What are you talking about? The illusion of control, I can control people’s mind, I can convince people, so I can get the outcome I want, isn’t it? It’s all about control. When you are mindful of this, its transient and impermanent, and therefore actually, the reality is to Dukkha. And because of that. You don’t have control. Control is a figment of our imagination. Then why is it so important to get this, internalise this, why is it so important? So that you have an incentive to avoid evil, be good? And why is that important? Only then can you be happy, only when you can build your life rich with kindness, compassion, patience, etc. Then moment to moment, you are at ease, not disease, dis-ease, you are at ease you are peaceful.

Kai Xin  1:03:46

To remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of life, we can do it through reflecting on death. And also in the process, we would see the first noble truth which is, there is suffering, that is Dukkha. And that will propel us to then do what is beneficial, what is right. And through this cycle. That’s where we become wiser. We are more aware and mindful of our actions, and it is like rinse and repeat. Correct?

Sylvia 1:04:16

Yes.

Kai Xin 1:04:48

All right. Thanks a lot, Sister Sylvia. It’s been such a pleasure to hear from you and alot of insights. Thank you.

Thank you.

Thanks, listeners for tuning in. I hope you got as much value as I did. Please share with us what is your biggest take away, you can do so on our telegram channel or wherever you are listening to this podcast. Please give us a review because it would really help us to reach more people. And please share if you know anyone who can benefit from this. In the next episode, my co-host Cheryl and I will be touching on this topic a little deeper, exploring perspectives of how we can stand up for what is right in the Buddhist way, and whether Anger is ever justified. How can we treat a person who has committed a bad deed?

Stay tuned for the next episode. Meanwhile, stay happy and wise.


Special Thanks to:

  • Sopisa for helping with the transcript
  • Key Seng Tan, and Lynn Leng for sponsoring this podcast


More about Sylvia Bay’s work: 

Website

Books 

Talk – Dhamma is hope

Article – Cultivating faith in fearful times