4 things I never realised until I studied overseas…during a pandemic

4 things I never realised until I studied overseas…during a pandemic

TLDR: Being stuck in lockdowns isn’t the best way to start university, but here’s what I have learnt! Studying overseas allowed me to have an open mind and embrace challenges as they came. 

“Congratulations! The world is your oyster.”  

Like many undergraduates studying abroad, studying overseas was a significant milestone for me. I had many aspirations for personal growth, academic success and ultimately, a successful career. 

Though I had many worries about what the future may bring, I knew that it was something I have longed for. I couldn’t contain my excitement as the days approached – the start of my journey in England! 

Groups of students were at the airport with their friends and family, but I was alone pushing the airport trolley. It was a familiar yet strange feeling to be at the airport. This time was unlike all previous trips: I felt uneasy and lonely. 

This was just the beginning of my journey. It was later filled with moments of unexpectedness. An identity I thought was solid was shown to be transparent.

Here’s what I have learnt during my year abroad:

1. Being at peace with my emotions

Lugging heavy luggage up and downhill, then up a few flights of stairs marked my arrival at college. A physical workout I never expected at a world-class institution. 

Then, came my greatest shock: 2 boxes of food that were for half a month of quarantine. Hot meals that I expected to be delivered to my room were merely my wishful thinking. 

Instant food and more junk food greeted me as I rummaged through the boxes, only to find out that I was given the same food ration daily. 

The reality was vastly different from what I had expected. I was disappointed because I had high expectations of university life. One disappointment after another coupled with homesickness just made things worse.  

Being in an unpleasant situation, I learned to slowly acknowledge and accept my emotions. Recognising that emotions were fleeting and impermanent calmed me down. Labelling my emotions made their fleeting nature more obvious.

I was more mindful when unpleasant emotions arose and l grew to be more gentle towards myself. Unhappy times would eventually pass, and so would happy ones. 

I started to live in the present and realised I had limited control over the future. We, humans, desire pleasant feelings and want to cling to them, while quickly escaping from unpleasant ones. 

Suffering is experienced when things do not go according to our wishes. We feel uneasy and become reactive towards the unfamiliar.

My comfort food was a warm bowl of noodles and not potato chips in the cold weather. I learned to be grateful for the food which provided me with energy instead of viewing it as an unpleasant meal. 

All conditioned phenomena are impermanent; When one sees this with Insight-wisdom, one becomes weary of dukkha (dissatisfaction). This is the path to purity.” Dhammapada Verse 277

2. Learning to slow down

In Singapore, I was used to the fast-paced life where everything has to be done quickly and efficiently. We are always in a rush to complete yet another task. 

In England, I began immersing myself in my surroundings and noticed the little things. I took time to enjoy the brilliant colours of the autumn foliage, sheep grazing the field, birds chirping at dawn and dusk and the paw prints of bunnies when winter arrived.

I made so many discoveries when I slowed down to observe. 

The little things which I once paid no attention to were the ones I looked forward to each day. 

By relaxing my pace of life, I started to appreciate the people, culture and environment. I was slower in jumping to conclusions and was more willing to understand and learn. I was responding and not reacting to different situations

I felt happier and more relaxed by focusing on what I had, rather than worrying about the future.

3. Staying calm in the face of challenges

One of my favourite places to take a walk

Stuck in the middle of a pandemic, I had to do my laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc., amidst many assignments and exams. These were previously handled by my parents in Singapore.

Moreover, schoolwork greatly increased in depth and breadth compared to polytechnic. There were much more readings, preparations for seminars, and numerous modules to handle.

Besides, I was studying a subject that was foreign and needed more time to understand the content. The accumulation of the tasks and workload consumed me.

I was experiencing high stress, yet I need to increase my productivity to complete my tasks. Thankfully, I managed to set aside time to find some solutions to get me through these difficult moments. Having exposure to the Dhamma through groups like BFY and NPBS gave me the tools to get through these moments.  

– Meditation 

Before a study session, I would calm down by doing a short meditation. This was beneficial in decluttering thoughts and giving clarity to focus on tasks. 

Day-tight compartments

Day-tight compartments prioritise focusing on the task we have at hand, without being trapped in the past or future. 

I would plan out my agenda for the day and break it down into small manageable tasks. Having a plan assures me that I would be able to complete my agendas on time. 

During each study session, I would focus on my planned tasks. However, if important stray thoughts arose, I would jot them down and attend to them later. 

4. Being appreciative 

Being away from my family and friends made me realise their importance and how much I have taken them for granted. 

All the little things that I have taken for granted all these years, such as a bowl of home-cooked food or even a short face to face meet-up with my friends and family were the ones I yearned for. 

These made me more appreciative of the unconditional care and support that I once took as given. Now that I am back at home, the experience abroad reminds me to spend more quality time with my family and do more for them. 

Even though I am currently back in Singapore, studying abroad was one of the most memorable times –  wonderful memories and the ones that made me grow. 

It made me realise the impermanent nature of things. I was once full of hope for where my educational journey in England would bring me, but ultimately things change, and so do my purposes. This is truly anicca.

 Wise Steps:

  • When an unpleasant situation arises, observe & label the emotions you are feeling and note your reaction to them. What can we do differently the next time it arises?
  • The next time you’re on your daily commute, take time to observe your surroundings and the greenery that surrounds you.
  • Identify methods that calm yourself down in the face of adversities (meditation/ taking walks/ day-tight compartments)
My 3 Lessons Learnt From LDR

My 3 Lessons Learnt From LDR

TLDR: Surviving a long-distance relationship is not easy and some say it’s a work of art. It requires firm conviction with a goal in mind, effective and mindful communication as well as the willingness to compromise.

“Hey, since you are enlisting soon, aren’t you afraid of long-distance relationships (LDR)?”, “You are going to Tekong, how is your relationship going to survive?” 

These were the exact words directed to me when I enlisted back in 2016. I am certain I am not the first to receive such comments. As a terribly unromantic person, I had concerns about keeping the relationship going. 

Thankfully, despite the distance, my partner and I recently celebrated our 5th anniversary. We have emerged stronger and closer than ever before.

Before sharing my observations, it’s crucial to note that LDR has the disadvantage of being subjective. Hence, no single manual works for everyone.

Nevertheless, I hope my 3 observations provide a brief guide to survive the “apocalyptic nature” of LDR.

1. Sharing Commonalities

It’s a common misconception that sharing commonalities means sharing common interests and hobbies. Of course, when both parties share the same goals, values, interests and hobbies,  this alignment ideally benefits any relationship.

What happens when interests diverge? Do relationships naturally break apart due to the lack of shared passions? 

The sustenance of a relationship need not be based on shared hobbies. My partner and I are on the opposite ends of many spectra. I am more liberal while she is conservative; she is idealistic while I am pragmatic. Touch is her love language while I prefer to take a step back. 

We do not share many common interests. I find her interest in Korean drama stodgy while she sees my interest in books boring. However, we share the common goal of tying the knot. To me, having an end goal in mind is crucial as it sets the relationship’s foundation in place.

The author & his partner celebrating their 5th-anniversary over dinner

With a firm foundation, both parties can erect pillars to grow their relationship.

Just like the black pepper tree that requires a stake to lean on to grow, every relationship would require a pillar with a firm base. This helps in both managing conflict and strengthening communication.

Many conflicts in relationships arise from selfish thinking and rash decisions made without consultation. Working towards the goal of marriage, my partner and I discussed issues ranging from career pathways, education prospects, investment and housing plans, and even which side of the family will look after our future kids. 

We thought that if we aligned from the start, there is less chance of being in a rude shock when communication falters. If one individual was prepared for marriage but the partner refused to be tied down, it would end in eventual separation. 

In the inevitable ups and downs of a relationship, having a pillar of shared commonalities mitigate squabbles. A firm foundation realigns us back on course if we deviate.  

Living in a separate time zone, I often take Singapore’s safety for granted and forget to check if she is back home safely from work. A conflict might arise if there is an assumption of me lacking the effort to show concern.

Now and then, we clash over ‘trivial’ pickings. I would much rather have these ‘trivial’ arguments than have her suspect my intentions when I am abroad. This is because she knows that we have marriage as the end goal.

By doing so, trust is built. We may argue over the ‘processes’ but never the outcome. In turn, she understands that I live by the Buddhist’s 5 precepts and thus has the faith in me to do the right thing. 

2. Mindful Communication

Communicating effectively is a crucial aspect of any relationship. The willingness to communicate effectively. At the start, it was difficult. We were both used to the physical presence of one another. 

From meeting up and chatting all day to not even chatting at all on some days was tough.

As a result, we fought a lot more. However, we realized what we fought over was not due to the absence of physical presence. What we fought over was the lack of effective communication.

Effective communication entails presenting your views, feelings and values in the way best understood by the receiver. I was not doing that. When we spoke, my replies were often monologue, indirect and anti-climactic. I was merely regurgitating what happened throughout the day and mainly talking about “myself”.

I assumed that sharing my daily overseas routine would keep the conversation going and promote understanding. These assumptions proved to be wrong. While it is instinctively in our nature to talk about ourselves to feel a sense of validation and sympathy, boredom eventually sets in and attention wanders.

Such boredom or agitation is a result of your neural receptors being starved of the attention needed to feel a sense of self-validation.

In simple terms, people don’t always want to listen to everything about you. 

My self-esteem was boosted at the expense of my partner and it soon became one-way traffic where our communication was living off the other. There wasn’t an outlet for her to express her daily discontent or the opportunity to talk about “herself”.

Being aware of this, we made the effort to rectify it and that has helped us tremendously in our LDR since. Be mindful of the tendency to unconsciously fall into the “Self-Appreciating trap”. We unintentionally fall for such traps because we are not mindful of our speech. The lack of tack in our speech tends to cause offence, which may gravely affect our relationship. 

The Buddhist teachings of the noble eightfold paths include right speech as one of its core tenets. I view right speech as not just abstention from telling lies, slander or abusive language but also mindful speaking. 

Being aware of how we speak and what we talk about, clear boundaries are set.

As I hone my mindfulness, I started talking less about myself and presented my partner with opportunities to speak up. Our communication soon improved and became a two-way street.

Moreover, incorporating mindfulness in our everyday speech and actions allowed us to be considerate of one another’s needs.  

By practising mindfulness, we have transformed the way my partner and I communicate and have mitigated many potential flashpoints. Until today, even when I am studying abroad, our communication has improved and that boils down to being aware of how we communicate.

3. Put in the Effort & be Willing to Compromise

Humans can be selfish. However, we humans can cooperate too. Each partner can coexist in a relationship but opt to pursue his/her interest. Be it to flaunt the relationship as social status or to be satisfying sexual needs. If one is not putting in the effort into the relationship and is bent on pursuing his/her own “selfish” endeavours, the relationship is unlikely to last.

It takes two hands to clap. For the couple to succeed in a relationship, they must put away their differences, identify potential weaknesses and cooperate to work towards the goal.

If both parties share the same commonalities, then the relationship has a set goal.

However, the outcomes only become real if the process is set in place and acted upon through effort. 

This involves compromising on some of your interests for the relationship. For example, living in different time zones, I had to stay up past midnight and she would wake up early to skype. Although this does not seem like much, it reflects two points in maintaining a healthy LDR: 

Firstly, we both share the same commonality and are willing to put in the effort to achieve it. Secondly, that process meant that both parties had to compromise, forgo sleep, etc to keep the relationship growing. 

My mentor once mentioned, “Sharing similar hobbies doesn’t necessarily make the relationship work, it’s about you putting in the effort to settle your differences and make sure it works. It’s important to note that every relationship is a collective effort. Both parties must be prepared to put in the effort and willing to sacrifice some short-term interest for longer ones.”  

Closing Thoughts

Undergoing an LDR or any relationship for that matter is no easy feat. Our relationship had to overcome numerous obstacles and social stigmas. However, our relative success can be attributed to these 3 takeaways. 

These 3 lessons must be seen as complementary to one another and not mutually exclusive. Like me and many others who have gone through LDR, it’s not going to be easy but it is possible if one bears these 3 lessons in mind. In any relationship, it always takes two hands to clap.

Wise Steps:

  • Develop commonality in your relationship on how you envision it to be and the dreams you hold together
  • Practice mindful communication with your partner by avoiding the ‘self-appreciating trap’
  • Be willing to compromise, even if it means putting your ego & interest aside.
Lockdown In Paris: How I Stayed Connected During The Pandemic

Lockdown In Paris: How I Stayed Connected During The Pandemic

TLDR: Sometimes, a crisis does not always have to be doom and gloom, if we have some innovation and a willingness to experiment!  

Recently, a good friend forwarded me a Zoom meditation retreat led by Venerable Canda and Ajahn Brahm of the Anukampa Bhikkkhuni project. I rolled my eyes in my sockets a little (because my friend knew I was under lockdown in Paris and didn’t have anywhere else to go), but was enthused by the idea of attending a retreat. The last one I attended had been over 3 years ago (even before moving to Paris)!

Immediately after that, however, I was accosted by scepticism that retreats need to be conducted in person. Online retreats would not be any good.

Indeed, the absence of any interaction with a teacher who could read retreatants’ body language and signals to guide retreatants was slightly worrying. Being in the physical presence of a teacher was psychologically important for me.

Nevertheless, the lack of an opportunity to attend a retreat for the past 3 years pushed me to sign up. I am very glad I did, as my preconceived notions were pushed out of the window.

Zooming out of the lockdown and into my heart

From the very first time I tuned in, I could feel waves of authenticity coming from Venerable Canda and Ajahn Brahm, who were conducting the retreat together. Their faces, as they looked at us in our little screens, radiated compassion and warmth that was no different from being there  in person.

The only difference? This time we could see them up close!

Because it was happening in real-time, there was no feeling of artificiality or forcedness. Indeed, both venerable admitted halfway through the retreat that they were also slightly apprehensive about whether people would be receptive to  an extended online retreat. It had gone even better than they had expected!

Somehow, as Venerable Canda put it, they managed to intuitively gauge the audience and “pitch to the middle” as they would have done in person.

When words speak to the heart and the person at the other end is speaking from theirs whilst tailoring it to you, it doesn’t matter whether it is done in person or online.

Is ‘community’ missing from online zoom retreats?

Another pleasant surprise that I had underestimated was the presence of community at the retreat. Again, I had assumed that any sense of community would have been obliterated by our inability to be together in person. I was happy to be proved spectacularly wrong.

I discovered that encouraging retreatants to turn their video on placed faces to names, and sometimes facial expressions during the talk.

This created a palpable sense of community – we were all experiencing something together at the same time.

What helped even more at the end of the retreat was an opportunity to interact with fellow retreatants who shared on their retreat experience. While it was put in place to help ease retreatants back into everyday life, it also allowed us to connect more deeply with others.

In the two minutes per person that we were given, people turned from faces on a screen to living, breathing beings with their own problems, aspirations and thoughts. Such beautiful sharings forged an inexplicable sense of togetherness.

Do we need retreat centres to disconnect?

Having the retreat at home made me rethink my assumption that retreats always needed to be in retreat centres or temples, lest  we “just cannot disconnect”!

While my room as a psychological place of safety had taken a beating after working from home commenced, retooling the room for the meditation retreat made me view my room in a positive way that I had never seen before.

While I had done meditation in my room before, it was always peripheral to the function of my room, in my mind at least. With the meditation retreat being conducted at home, I needed to go beyond my usual meditation spot to find different spaces that could allow me to change around a bit. A small achievement! I managed to clear a small path for walking within my small room!

It does sound cliché, but the retreat was an opportunity to show me that sometimes we are constrained by our views and supposed knowledge. A fresh and happy mind is very conducive to creatively develop things of value.

This online Zoom retreat was an immensely positive experience for me. I am very grateful for the organisers’ kindness and also willingness to experiment. I had so much joy hearing from other participants on how they were able to let go of their various negativities of depression, anger or anxiety. With that letting go, they gently develop contentment with the moment during the retreat.

By the end I had tears bursting out from my eyes! With the right intention and some wisdom and creativity, it was a great demonstration for me. A demonstration that truly meaningful solutions can be developed that are beneficial to others. I hope to take this inspiration and apply it in my own life as well.

Wishing everyone good thoughts and safety through this pandemic.

Wise Steps:

  • Be open to trying online retreats, it will reshape the way you think!
  • Find joy in the sharing of others, lessening the importance on the story of ‘Me’