TLDR: We have all said goodbyes at some point in our lives. Does it always have to be a sad occasion? How can we better deal with goodbyes? Wilson reflects on his departure from loved ones and friends.
Departure (4 Oct, 08:00am)
Knowing that I only had one month left, it felt like there were so many people to meet and so many things to do. The outpouring of love and kindness from the people in my life gave me an indication of the quality of relationships that I have forged in my time here.
However, I could not help but wonder about the intentions behind these gestures.
I felt a tinge of guilt for thinking that all these were more for them than for me, that these helped them to make peace with my eventual departure.
I struggled with myself, “My friends and family seemed to assume that they have a right to ask for whatever time I have remaining. Yet, it also feels wrong to tell people that I want more time for myself and to reject their kindness. Also, how can I make assumptions about their intentions? That reflects more about how I view the loved ones in my life.”
As the end drew near, I thought I would feel sad, nervous or even excited. Interestingly, it just felt like the end of every other day that I have lived so far. I guess maybe I have prepared enough and that the end just feels like it would come sooner or later anyway.
Or maybe it is because I’m still on the way to the other side and that it will all start to sink in once I arrive.
At this point, I want to take the chance to thank the people in my life for loving me, helping me to learn and grow and eventually, letting me go with your heartfelt well-wishes. I think that is one of the greatest gifts I have received. Thank you all.
Oh, you are still here? After reading the previous few paragraphs, you may be thinking, “This Wilson has gone crazy already. Say until like he’s dying like that.”
Or maybe you are texting me now to scold me for scaring you. Hehe, please forgive me for deciding on such a dramatic and possibly triggering way to start the article. 😅
To set the record straight, I left Singapore for Japan to study and do research for the next 1.5 years. I do hope that the opening captured how I felt about the similarities between going overseas for a long period and dying.
However, if you are still cross with me (and understandably so 😛), I hope the rest of the article explains well the thought process of this weirdo here.
There are many ways in which we may leave this world. It could be sudden, leaving you shocked like a deer in headlights. Or you would have an idea of the end drawing near, giving you some time to make preparations.
I was reminded of a quote by Paul Kalanithi in his book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, which described his journey of facing his mortality as a surgeon himself: “I began to realise that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I know knew it acutely.”
I feel blessed to be given the chance to say my goodbyes and to feel the love and care of my loved ones. It made me think about how I would ideally like to leave this world and how I could live my life so that when my time is up, it would reduce the suffering for myself and the people around me.
While I mentioned the similarities between going overseas and dying, I noticed a major difference.
When it comes to going overseas, it is usually celebrated. However, when it comes to dying, it is mostly grieved. You may retort, “Of course lah! Dying is a permanent goodbye leh. You go overseas we can still visit each other what.”
Also, people also tend to celebrate deaths if the deceased had lived till a “ripe” old age. Even the choice of words betrays our value judgments on the importance of living a long life.
To me, this often-quoted phrase captures my attitude succinctly: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” I think it may be also because I believe that I would not be able to live a long life due to my extreme levels of carelessness.
With all these said, I am not proposing that we ignore the fact that others may be grieving over departures in their lives and therefore, trivialise the suffering that they are experiencing.
It is perfectly normal to experience sadness and grief as a response to loss in our lives, be it due to death or otherwise. However, we can also choose to respond to those by celebrating the life of the deceased.
For me, I had the idea that at my funeral, guests would be invited to note down a favourite memory that they shared with me. They can then probably laugh together at the silly things that happened in my life, including falling into the swan lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and getting into a tussle with monkeys at the Penang Botanic Gardens.
Preparing for Departures
How should we then prepare for departures, be it our own or others’, going overseas or dying? Instead of considering the plethora of things that one can prepare to make the departure easier, I think it would be good to focus on something manageable that we can do regularly.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to use separation and death as part of 5 themes to reflect upon to support them in their spiritual practice.
“Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon
… by a householder or one gone forth.
1. ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’
2. ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’
3. ‘I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.’
4. ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’
5. ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’”
Initially, you may find it weird or even uncomfortable when conducting this set of reflections and that is perfectly normal since we do not usually consider our mortality as we go about our everyday lives. However, I do hope this practice can support you in living a good life, so that when the time comes to leave, for whatever reasons and in whatever ways, you are ready for it.
We often go through life without thinking about departures of different natures, possibly even avoiding the idea of departures.
The grief that we associate with departures arises easily in our minds and while that is perfectly natural, we can approach departures in a different light.
We can choose to celebrate the moments we shared with the person who is leaving while taking the chance to reflect upon separation and death to support us in our spiritual practice.
Reminding ourselves of the 5 themes that Buddha taught us help us not to take life for granted
Grief is perfectly natural; what matters is our response to it. finding the right community to support you through it is most crucial!
TLDR: Learning to see life in death requires courage. It is a great reminder to live life well and see joy even in the downs of life
We all know that our loved ones and ourselves will pass away someday. For the majority of us, however, this isn’t something we normally bring to mind – that is until circumstances make this a reality in our lives.
For me, this reality came in late-2017 when my close uncle (Tiuo Tiuo) passed away from Leukemia. Tiuo Tiuo was almost like a 2nd dad to me, and he was by my side through my various life milestones all the way until university. From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt many life lessons – and the lessons continued even until his last days and beyond.
“There will come a year when we will have 1 less person (at Chinese New Year) compared to the previous year. It will be really sad and the memories of that person and his presence will certainly be missed. I also felt sad looking at Ah Ma’s picture on the wall. It is the first time I see a familiar face of someone on a wall like that…”
29-01-2017 (Chinese New Year)
Tiuo Tiuo was someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life! One of his greatest pleasures was to pluck in his earphones and immerse himself in the music on his handphone. However, he was never good with technology and often required help loading up or accessing his music. The job to troubleshoot his phone when it malfunctioned often fell to me – and honestly, it wasn’t something I enjoyed all the time (especially after a long day at school)!
“So Tiuo Tiuo’s leg has been troubling him these past 2 months, but more acutely these past 2 weeks. Old age and sickness indeed.”
Looking back, however, memories of these small acts of service give me the greatest joy. There is little regret in my heart, knowing that I overcame my laziness to help bring minor conveniences and joy to Tiuo Tiuo. Since then, I made it a personal principle never to turn down requests from my loved ones as far as possible – we never know when that might be the last time we can help.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that being of service is a blessing.
“I brought Tiuo Tiuo to A&E for his full body check up… Was informed that he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which is essentially cancer… It is hard looking at Tiuo Tiuo suffering – not just his physical pain, but his mental expectations that this would be a short one.”
Aside from listening to music, Tiuo Tiuo also loved to catch up on the latest news around the world! One of the common interests that we shared was to follow the latest English Premier League football highlights. As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, however, these joys became harder to attain as his world turned more inwards.
“Tiuo Tiuo started his first chemo today… There is a chance Tiuo Tiuo will face many complications for his health and get more sick; or he might be on this long and gradual road to recovery and this state will hence linger for a few years. It is so uncertain.”
Being by Tiuo Tiuo’s side as he journeyed through his last days, I saw that pleasures in life are not evenly distributed throughout. Many of the more enjoyable and sensually delightful experiences are often front-loaded in our youth and early adulthood. The less pleasant parts of ageing, sickness, the dulling of our senses, and the gradual losing of things we hold dear – these come slowly, but inevitably.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that conditions go their natural way.
How We Live
“Tiuo Tiuo has been admitted to the ICU and intubated and unable to speak, and the prognosis isn’t good… But what’s for sure is that he is suffering much now, and I don’t know how to ease his suffering.”
As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, he could not enjoy the things he used to enjoy. Instead, he sought a simpler solace from the companionship provided by our entire extended family who banded together to support him. Tiuo Tiuo lived his life in service of others. Through the decades, his humble 4-room flat played host to many of my Malaysian cousins working in Singapore who required accommodation.
As one of the respected elders in the family, he always rejoiced in our successes, and was quietly supportive in our times of struggles – even financially at times. As Tiuo Tiuo gradually grew weaker, he rested at peace with memories of a life well-lived and in the companionship of family.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that how we live, is how we pass.
“Thursday, the doctor said the falling BP and oxygen levels were signs that Tiuo Tiuo was passing away soon … I stood outside the glass door for an extended period sending metta (loving-kindness). That was the last time I saw Tiuo Tiuo alive… I went in and ma ma and mum were reassuring him that it is ok to pass; the rest were kneeling down, sis was crying badly. I did not cry. Sent metta to Tiuo and wished for him to be well and happy.”
It has been almost 3 years since Tiuo Tiuo passed away. With time, the deep feelings of loss and sadness have given way to a more subtle appreciation of the values he represented. As I pay respects to Tiuo Tiuo at his altar daily, the lessons he taught also continue to inspire me to live each day fruitfully in service of others.
While Tiuo Tiuo may no longer be around, in many ways, he lives through the lives of many around him whom he had touched. Our loved ones and ourselves will indeed pass away someday, and we do not need to wait for this to be a reality before we learn the lessons that death and dying presents.
By realising our mortality, may we learn to be less intoxicated with youth, health and life. By learning the preciousness of our human life, may we allow mindfulness and wisdom to guide us on the path towards truer and more lasting forms of happiness.
Learn to see the bright sparks in the bleakest of time, as every moment is an opportunity to find sparks
Knowing that separation is inevitable, fruitfully serve those around you
Resources to help in death (and life) contemplation:
TLDR: For people who are all ready to go, and always succeeded in being discipline, you may stop reading now. The article has three parts: the why, the how and the what. 1) Understanding why a goal is needed, 2) How to create optimal conditions for success, 3) Strategies for building habits that stick.
Three young children huddled together, their mouths agape with awe at the impressive display of orange and green fireworks lighting up the night sky with its glittery spiral sparks. I, too, was once that wide-eyed little girl believing that once the clock strikes 12, the magic of The New Year will finally bring about positivity, change and of course, washboard abs. Year after year, the only thing that eroded were not my fats, but my faith in resolutions.
Peeling the ra-ra away from the grand celebrations, resolutions are nothing other than a goal that someone sets for himself or herself. But given the fact that resolutions are set and revisited only once a year, it lacks a regular review or accountability system, it is doomed to fail.
We need a better system equipped with accountability and regular review. What I offer for your reading here is a system that is based on scientific theories, and by no means a perfect one, but it seems to be working for me. Take it with a pinch of salt. I’ll also be attaching some trackers to aid with the implementation of these habits.
Source: The Daily Mississipian
Step 1: [Why] — Set it right: Find personal meaning
First of all, why do you even want to improve yourself? While the answer may seem obvious at first glance, is it really reflecting your true motivations? With the barrage of perfect bodies and perfect lives that we consume on a daily basis, it is so easy to be spurred on with desire- like a kid getting to choose anything in Candy Wonderland. The trouble with that is, as fleeting as it arises, the desire that is not rooted in personal meaning is fickle- it does not have any substance to weather through the ups and downs of transformation.
Here’s how to find meaning:
1.Current Snapshot: Rate where you feel you’re currently at using the Wheel of Life below. Pick one of the lowest ranked. If there are a few that are equally low, you can pick one that you feel is more urgent at this point in life.
Wheel of Life; Source from Minimalism co
2. Draw Inspiration: You might want to bring to mind a few people who excel in that particular area of your life and you respect them. What specific traits inspire you? Some common examples are persistence, kindness, ambition, authenticity, discipline, empathy, curiosity or courage. Then, rank the top 3 using these three simple questions.
a. Why do I care?
b. How does it matter?
c. So what?
The questions are super simple- almost obvious even, but so often neglected. These are powerful tools to dig deep into your purpose, motivation and subconscious drives. While at this step, you may not have found something that clearly stands out, and that’s ok. Feel free to revisit this few steps again at any time.
3. Cause and effect: Consider how the absence of these traits manifest in the aspects of your life rated the lowest.
Ask this one question: How is it playing a part in your dissatisfaction?
You may also want to bring awareness into the direct emotional consequences. Understand how the lack of this trait brings about certain emotions, self perceptions and attitudes that you are experiencing.
For example, the lack of discipline might result in sloppy dietary choices and bad sleeping routines, thus giving rise to the perception of lack of attractiveness. The corresponding attitude might be that of self defeatism and a dull inertia. It is important to stay through to the discomfort and tension that may arise while going through this exercise.
4. Aspire: Visualise the positive effects of developing these traits. Imagine the wonderful consequences on both the short(<1 year)and long term (>5 years) timeline. If you have a vague idea of who you’d like to be, it’d also be good but optional to connect it to that vision too.
An example: My intention is to be disciplined about my physical health.
Results of such cultivation:
Ailments, discomfort and pain in my physical body will be reduced.
My self-confidence and my body image will improve.
My mental health will improve.
Recap: Two things may have bubbled up to the surface. Firstly, the traits that have compelling, personal meanings to us, and the areas of life that needs a significant improvement. We can use this as a foundation for setting our next steps.
Step 2: [How] — Optimal Conditions for Success
Habit Loop by Charles Duhigg
In his book, The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg explains that habits are built and enforced in a three part loop.
Firstly, a cue that triggers a behaviour. Secondly, the routine that you either want to get rid of or build. Lastly, the reward system that provides positive reinforcement for the behaviour to encourage your brain to do more of the routine.
To develop a certain trait, we need to create habits successfully. We can hack the loop at each part of the cycle to build sustainable habits and break unhelpful ones.
Part 1: Hacking the Cue — Self-awareness and Habit Stacking
Source: New York Times
Self Awareness to build new habits
Think about times where you have successfully created habits or achieved certain goals, and ask yourself these questions:
What is the context?
Was there a short term goal to achieve? Was it a response to negative feedback?
What emotions sustained the habit?
Was it a feeling of obligation to a group of people to show up? Was it a drive for personal satisfaction to proving yourself? Was there an element of competition/ camaraderie?
This two questions address the powerful drives and motivations that exceeds the negative seeds of demotivation and laziness, and are perhaps the most important questions in this exercise.
What time is it?
Was there a pattern to the times and days that you practiced the habits? This helps to identify the optimal times and energy levels that would be convenient to build a new routine. Don’t ask yourself to do a habit when you’re likely to be occupied with something else.
What social environment was present when you practiced the habit?
Research has shown that people are 65 percent likely to meet a goal after committing to another person. But depending on your personality, the way you build an accountability system and how you involve other people varies too and it’s good to know what works well for you.
What actions preceded the habit?
Stickler for routines or you’re the type where not a care in the world is given when the notification bell rings? Know thyself and plan accordingly.
You might be very surprised to find out that the answers to these questions vary very much. For example, for an extrovert like myself, I am more likely to do something if I’ll be doing it with others, and am driven to perform when there is a sense of competition. This environment might be completely horrifying to an introvert who is motivated by intrinsic satisfaction. Bringing in the self-awareness on what you like and naturally prefer, creates a path of lesser resistance, and you will be more likely to successfully create new habits.
Part 2: Habit Stacking to reduce bad habits (credits to B.J. Foggs)
Formula: After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
Use the above questions in step 1 to identify the situations that usually trigger bad habits. Bad habits are no different from good habits. They are triggered by cues and reinforced by reward too.
Leverage on the current cue you already do each day and stack your new behaviour before or after the new habit. You can also use your existing bad habits as a reward for doing your new habit. Let’s say you want to cultivate a new habit of meditation, using the formula:
After [waking up], I [flip through social media].
After [waking up], I will [meditate for 30 seconds]>>
After [meditating for 30 seconds], I [ flip through social media].
Link your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, it is more likely that you’ll stick to the new behaviour.
Recap: build new habits easily by optimising conditions that you are naturally inclined towards, and reduce unhelpful ones via associating healthier habits with existing built-in behaviours.
Step 3: [What] — Strategies for Building Routines that Stick
1. Set a timeline
Pick one ambitious goal that is reasonable for a one year period. As much as possible, try to quantify that goal. An example of a good goal would be- I want to climb Macchu Picchu (1000m) by the end of the year.
2. Break it down into 4 milestone activities—
Milestone activities are events where a certain demonstration of the skillset that you were cultivating is required. It should be something that you feel slightly intimidated of, such as an assessment or competition, so that completing it will give you a satisfaction that you’re on the right track of progress and allow you to relish in the fruits of your efforts.
Depending on the goal you set, the milestone activity could be direct or indirectly related or flexible.
Direct Milestone Activities
Could be a numerical figure you want to achieve. For example, if you want to reach the peak of Mount Kinabalu by the end of the year, your quarterly milestone activities could be conquering mountains of incremental heights each quarter leading up to the goal.
Indirect Milestone Activities
More generically tied to fitness- such as joining a gruelling triathlon in the first quarter, and a week-long fitness bootcamp the second quarter.
Flexible Milestone Activities
Putting in some mix in your milestone activity is key in sustaining the habit over the long term. The activities itself does not matter, but rather the act of progressing in the desired direction, and developing the persistence is what will help sustain this lifestyle.
3. Aim for the bare minimum:
The Goldilock rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. You want to make habits that are just beneath what feels like work. Pick at most 2–3 habits to build at most, and once it is built, you can add on more.
For optimal frequency setting, you can do this by finding out :
Actual abilities at your lowest point– Eg 0 time exercise per week
Highest abilities at your peak– Eg 4 times exercise per week
Realistic sustained ability- Aim for somewhere slightly below the midpoint. eg 1 time per week
Repeat for 1 month- In order for a habit to be built, showing up consistently is required over a period of time- so I’d recommend sticking through with the goal for the very least 1 month.
The 1 and only rule here is to execute the bare minimum consistently. You can overachieve on days when you can and want for sure, but the bare minimum must be satisfied week after week.
Reflect and adjusting is crucial to making sure that you are not wasting your efforts into something that ceases to be relevant for your life just because you “have to”. Upon 1 month of practicing the habit, ask yourself this:
Is this habit still relevant to my goal?
Am I benefitting from practicing this habit?
Then, you can make the decision to increase, maintain or reduce the frequency of the habit, or modify the routine or even completely discard the habit altogether.
Sample Tracker (Contact my bio link for a copy of the tracker)
Reward system is probably the most underrated aspect of the habit loop. We don’t often think about it enough.
Intentional but simple:
You want to be celebrating that habit. Don’t let even the smallest success slide by. Be intentional about positively reinforcing the habit.
Simple things that bring joy: Elbow bump someone. Share on social media. Text a friend. Pick your dopamine poison to trick your brain into craving and anticipating more. At the same time, you want to be careful of not overindulging in rewards that might be counter to your progress. Overeating after exercising, anyone?
The journey of growth and personal development is a long one. We are not perfect and will never be. Please be kind to ourselves and remember that even at the current stage, you are 100% worthy of love and acceptance. Enjoy the little things and ups and downs of the journey, and allow the process to transform you.
Thank you for coming all the way here, and if you’re still reading, I really appreciate it.