Film Review: The Way Out – Mindfulness, Environmentalism & Burnout

Film Review: The Way Out – Mindfulness, Environmentalism & Burnout

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: The journeys of two young men searching for answers converge at  Plum Village. It offers light in a world where we see escape as the only means to happiness.

It often feels that a day barely passes without the media talking about mental well-being or climate change as a subject that demands our attention. However, it is rare for a film to stir your attention and make you sit up to notice these issues.

Director Wouter Verhoeven’s heavy use of first-hand footage, interviews with protagonists and others brings into focus, the plight of Mother Nature and burnout in life.

Wouter masterfully uses mindful pauses in the film (shots of nature and the characters doing mundane activities) to create moments for reflection.

His main message is clear throughout the entire film: The way out of these crises starts when we look inwards.

The film, with momentary commentary by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, further enhances the impact of the film’s message.

The founder of Plum Village teaches, “The way out is in. The way out of climate change is inside each of us.” His invitation is to pause: to stop running and observe what is really going on.

The Way Out is Reflection

Wouter’s documentary focuses on two protagonists: Eddie, an environmental activist struggling to prevent fracking in Yorkshire, England; the other, a London banker facing an existential crisis. The banker, upon deeply examining his life, discovers its monotony and emptiness.

The film lays bare their attempts to remedy that despair in both their searches. Eddie searches for environmental protection while the banker searches for meaning. 

As I watched the film, I was moved by the protagonists’ raw, unfiltered examination of their lives. The courage to confront their insecurities and uncertainty struck a chord within me. In a world where social validation of positivity is lauded, this film was a breath of fresh air.

For example, the banker realises that so many peers are depressed, in spite of their material success. He reflects that everyone is living in a fishbowl: one can look outside of the bowl but is incapable of experiencing the ocean outside (real world).

“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The Way Out is Harmony

What makes this film worth sitting up and paying attention to? For me, it was the Director’s elegant weaving of the two stories into one storyline. As I watched the film, I was trying hard to understand how the two protagonists’ stories would meet. Hint: Plum Village is the centre stage.

Within the film, harmony is achieved by the director’s thoughtful mix of tense scenes of confrontations with still nature shots and interviews with a Plum Village monastic.

The monk speaks to Eddie about his confrontations with the fracking industry and how Eddie feels about it.

“Don’t make a front, make a circle, there is no one to fight. We suffer because we don’t know better,” the Buddhist monk counsels Eddie as he faces burnout over his cause. 

Nuggets of wisdom like this sprinkled throughout the film makes it a compelling watch. The film is not alarmist but rather, awakening.

The Way Out is Change

The most beautiful part of the film is watching how these two protagonists transform their mental states, especially after they come into contact with Plum Village, a Zen monastery in France. Seeing their calm faces while meditating, and their serene smiles while doing temple chores brought a smile to my face.

Eddie’s calm focus while making bread for fellow practitioners and the banker’s gaze while being in the monastery garden were my favourite scenes of inner change for these two characters.

Seeing Eddie and the banker find the strength to feel comfortable in their own skin and at peace was a relief. It was akin to witnessing a fish finding its way out of the fishbowl into the greater ocean. Change can be painful but necessary.

Change enables to let go of superficial & lesser happiness for the greater & deeper happiness in life.

Who do I Recommend the Film for?

Friends who find themselves stuck in the grind of the 9-to-5 or those feeling burnout from championing causes close to their hearts. 

This film speaks directly to you and is unafraid to show you the costs of your ideals. It is a great introduction for those new to Buddhism as the film gives a taste of how Dhamma can be applied in real-world situations. How do we approach people who are in direct conflict with our values? How do we face an existential crisis? The film is a perfect illustration of Buddhism in action without requiring deep Buddhist knowledge.

You will be challenged to stop running and to take a pause. To find a mindful and peaceful way out.

A positive post-note to the film: In 2019, the UK government halted fracking in England. This effectively bans fracking in the UK, a watershed moment for activists and the environment. Scientific studies warned it was not possible to rule out unacceptable consequences for those living near fracking sites.


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Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: Comparing the lives of an old monk and his young apprentice, this film reflects on simplicity, love, and a life’s journey

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a beautiful Korean movie that reflects on our life’s journey, the choices we make, and subsequent consequences.  The movie is set in a temple floating upon a tranquil lake in the middle of an untouched forest. It revolves around two main characters: an old monk and his young apprentice.  They sustain themselves by gathering herbs from nature, engaging in simple chores, and recitation of suttas or Buddhist scriptures. 

Watching the young apprentice living his youth in such peaceful surroundings in comparison to our bustling days, I thought surely, he would be much happier than us?  

After all, we are constantly seeking that “peaceful” place, somewhere where we can be one with ourselves, and achieve the happiness that can be so elusive. 

The Four Seasons

Through this movie, director Kim Ki-duk leads us through a comparison between the lives of the old monk and his young apprentice.  As the season changes into years, both individuals are transformed.  The young apprentice experienced various emotions as he grew from a child to a man.  As Kim Ki-duk says, “I think that a human being’s life is very similar to the four seasons. The four seasons all have very different characters”.  

What we see in this film is that in each phase of our lives, or as our mind changes, we also begin to form certain views, emotions, and actions.  An example is a young apprentice who began to develop a physical attraction to a young girl.  As he drew away from monkhood and entered the lay life in pursuit of his “love” subject which he believes would bring him happiness, his desires eventually drove him to commit a crime.  With the police hot on his heels and his heart like burning coal, he decided to return to the temple of his youth.

The World Of Men

Here, we are shown a comparison of the old monk who has lived in simplicity all those years, unperturbed by external distractions.  Despite physical struggles with his ageing body and a solitary life with nothing more than a cat as a company since the young apprentice left, the old monk remains calm throughout the film.  He also dispenses short teachings of wisdom, to cool his apprentice’s feverish heart. 

“Didn’t you know beforehand how the world of men is? Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like. What you like, others will also like.”

Letting go of desires is a key teaching in Buddhism.  And though this film mainly depicts two monks, I doubt the director is sending us a message to leave all our loved ones behind, shave our heads and live in a secluded temple. 

Instead, my understanding of the movie and its simple similes through the scenes is that peace and happiness are not found outside, but are simply a state of mind.  

Stone In Your Heart

If we let our lust and anger dictate our minds, we may make regrettable choices.  These choices do not just affect those around us, but they can become a heavy burden in our hearts. 

“You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life”.  This was one of the old monk’s first wise teachings at the beginning of the film.  As the story nears its closing,  we see that the young apprentice who is now in his middle age has begun to understand an important thing; although he may not be able to undo the wrong he has committed in the past, forgiveness and patience are the key factors to finding peace in his heart again.  This was shown as he hauled a heavy rock up a hill, and when it finally came to a rest, his face was both clear and serene.

With this film, do not expect much drama.  In fact, there are barely any lengthy dialogues.  There are no special effects or tear-jerking moments.

 I expected to be bored, but as the film progressed,  I found to my surprise a spiritual depth to the movie reminding me to let go, forgive and be patient as I find happiness through the four seasons of my life. 


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The Art of Mindful Running – How to Make Your Next Jog a More Meditative Experience

The Art of Mindful Running – How to Make Your Next Jog a More Meditative Experience

TLDR: Mindfulness practice is not limited to seated meditation sessions with closed eyes. With 4 simple steps, try cultivating an awareness of the present even on your next run.

person running on top on hill during daytime
Source: Unsplashed

In the Autumn of 2019, a continent and a half away from home, I picked up a tiny book from one of the many thrift stores in unassuming Birmingham. It was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. Cheap enough that it cost a single pound. Yet what struck me most, was the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s charming book How to Walk.

Sharing snippets on the essentials of mindfulness practice, the book is packed with short stories and illustrations of the impact mindful walking can have. The benefits are not limited to the person walking but also the world around them. 

The book contains brief instructions on how slow, concentrated steps can be an opportunity to become more present. Although the contents of the book is short, walking meditation – or caṅkama in Pali – has had a long history, dating back to the Buddha’s time.

Resonating with its accessibility in my everyday life, even walks to the MRT station have become more enjoyable, despite the sweltering Singapore heat.

Yet for a working adult looking to pass his IPPT in a couple of months, long walks sometimes do not quite cut it. Naturally, I thought of taking it a couple of steps further (and faster), “Would it be possible to adopt the same concepts of walking meditation to running?”

Why Running and Mindfulness Might be a Good Idea

Some hate it, others live by it, but running has long been heralded as a tool for maintaining physical well being. However, our mental health also stands to gain from us hitting the pavement. Running releases endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine that can help relieve stress and provide a calmer state of mind. It minimizes cognitive decline, preventing degeneration of the hippocampus, the part of our brain that handles memory and learning.

Likewise, the practice of mindfulness has proven to come with several health benefits. This includes stress reduction and emotional regulation. It is even linked to lowered blood pressure and improved general health through associations with behaviours such as physical activity, avoidance of nicotine and alcohol as well as better eating patterns.

Interestingly, there is growing evidence to support the marriage of two seemingly distinct activities. By staying focused on their physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they run, studies have shown that runners can enhance performance, assist their recovery process and even reduce injury.

In 2018, ASICS even created a ‘blackout track’, whereby study participants ran in darkness and silence to focus their minds. With sensory engagement reduced, the runners were encouraged to reflect inwardly during their runs.

This became a training technique for long-distance runners to tackle the limits of their mental restraints.

Ok enough evangelising. How can we apply mindfulness to our runs? At its core, mindful running is about being anchored to the present. While it may sound at odds with an activity that is moving you from one place to another with each passing stride, this is not impossible to do. 

Here is a quick 4-step guide:

1. Pay Attention to the World Around You

Firstly, you can start by paying attention to the world around you as you pass them by. Next, pay attention to the steps you take. One way of making your jog a more contemplative experience is to notice all that is around you, both visually and auditorily. 

People walking by. The swaying of trees. Chirping of birds. Buildings in their various forms and colours. There is so much to take in, and yet each scene and soundbite is never more transient as you run, changing with each bend you turn and each street lamp you pass.

Above all, remember to keep a lookout for where your feet are going to land.

Note: As tempting as it is to catch up on that podcast or to blast your workout track, paying attention to your surroundings means no earphones for this run. Road safety yo.

2. Tune into Your Breath

Running is the perfect opportunity for you to practice one of the most fundamental meditation practices: watching your breath. It may seem trite and impractical to do so as you are huffing and puffing your lungs away, but that is precisely the challenge it provides in honing your concentration. 

Beyond noticing each breath, running allows you to also observe how your breathing changes over the course of the run.

How does it compare at the start, middle and end? How much does it change from stride to stride? Are you breathing through your mouth or your nose? These are a few of the things you can ask yourself, as you tune into your breath.

3. Be Aware of the Rest of Your Body

Next, mindful running is also an opportunity to better synchronise yourself with your body. As you run, do a body scan. Which part of the foot is hitting the floor first: is it the ball, the heel, the toes? How do your feet feel, as it rises up and lands back down? The snugness of your feet in your shoe. The stretching of your shirt as your arms swing to the cadence of your stride. Notice the tension of your muscles – from your neck to your shoulders, thighs to calves.

Body scanning during your run provides a platform to better understand your body.  Scanning helps respond to signs that you should slow down, rest and recover – preventing injuries and improving wellbeing.

4. Be Non-judgemental

Most importantly, practising mindfulness in running is to practice non-judgement. When running, too often we are caught up in performance, metrics and timing, instead of the run itself. Running mindfully does not require you to go fast, nor slow. 

Running is ultimately about moving, and seeing any pace as a good pace for a run. So as you engage in these mindful runs, ditch your smartwatch and IPPT goals.

Listen to your breath, body and the present moment instead. And even if you cannot, remember to practice non-judgement on yourself.

Staying Present With Movement

In all, mindful running is another way by which we can cultivate an awareness of our present moment as we engage in our everyday lives. I have found the principles of walking meditation and mindfulness to be a perfect accompaniment to my runs. It has allowed me to feel more connected to not just myself, but also my environment. 

That said, not every run has been a mindful run. But just like how fitness builds with time, whether you are a beginner athlete or a semi-pro running veteran, maybe it is time to add another tool to your exercise regime.


Wise Steps:

  • Try running without headphones or distractions, just be in the moment
  • Be aware of the number of times your mind criticises or praises yourself for overtaking/falling behind other runners

How I Stayed Zen In The Face Of Pay Cuts

How I Stayed Zen In The Face Of Pay Cuts

TLDR: When faced with unexpected financial hardship… see things as they truly are, ask yourself ‘so what’, and live within your means.

‘At least you still have a job okay.’ 

The usual reply I received when speaking of pay cuts. Though the replies have compassionate intentions, it often falls short of comfort. In the loud narrative of ‘up skill, up skill, up skill’, these are 3 ways of how I stayed Zen in the face of pay cuts. 

See things as they truly are 

When I first received news of the pay cut, it caught me off guard. I thought that business was going well. I felt that it was ‘unnecessary’ to do so and that I and my peers were ‘victims’. To us, our pay was already low, hence getting pay cuts was a crazy possibility. The gap between perception and reality is where suffering arose. 

Seeing these thoughts in my head, I recalled the term ‘Seeing things as they truly are’. This meant reframing the way we look at reality. This shifts our perspective away from ourselves and to the bigger picture.  

We distance ourselves from the negativity by removing the ‘I’ & ‘my’ & ‘me’. This prevents us from cycling around the stories born of our perception. Through this thought exercise, we find our calm and have a clearer view of reality.

Asking ‘so what’ rather than ‘why me’? 

It takes great effort to remove the ‘I’ & ‘my’ & ‘me’ from your thoughts. Hence, this step is another useful tool for staying Zen. As my mind played out many crazy scenarios of the pay cut, a thought bubbled up…’so what?’.  

That cut through all the self-victimization. It made me pause to count my blessings. Asking ‘so what’ places you mind to see the possibilities that one can undertake, it widens your mind. Counting blessings and seeing possibilities is one crucial way to uplift your spirits. This redirects your emotions into creating something new. 

My inspiring friends who had a job and pay cuts took the path of ‘so what’. They started selling masks and even durian to generate a new income source. By directing energy away from ‘why me’, they found possibilities to not only remain Zen but also thrive. 

Finding the essential 

“But I am super not creative or enterprising” could be a reply to talk of entrepreneurship. If you feel now is not the right time to increase income, that’s fine. This last tip helps you remain calm by finding the essential in your sea of expenses. 

Having pay cuts challenges you to live and be content with less. Being a finance nerd, I started to look at all my expenses after my pay cut. Asking myself, what is essential to my welfare and happiness?  

Asking these questions in front of your spreadsheet may seem mad, but this is crucial to reaching essentialism. Through this expense cutting, I realised I could do away with certain expenses I used to deem as essential. Essentialism by Greg Mckeown talks about changing the mental statements you make to arrive at what is essential.

Non-Essenüalist 
"l have to" 
"It's all important " 
"l can do both" 
Essenüalist 
"l choose to" 
"Only a few things really matter" 
"l can do anything but not everything"

By directing your energy towards finding the essential, you avoid spiraling into monetary stress. You also find that you can live on less. This slowly builds you up to pursue a life of essentialism and keeps your precious Zen-ness (calm). 

Summary 

These are little tools I found useful in my journey, I hope you find them useful in these difficult times.  

A key takeaway is that when negative thoughts do arise, don’t just indulge them or push them away. Rather than blindly being led by them, question them. Ask yourself why you feel shame or self-doubt. Learn from it. Use your emotions to your benefit. 

Stay calm. Stay zen!


Wise Steps:

  • When faced with unexpected financial difficulties, ask yourself “So What?”, this brings about new perspectives
  • Find an open window of time to cut down on spending that no longer serves you beneficially. Reset & Rethink!