How (I Think) I Thrive: Silence, Self Care and Social Inclusion.
Surviving the crash and living to tell the tale after twelve years of unlearning and relearning, here’s what I have learned to thrive in a meritocracy that keeps us in a treadmill of anxiety and constant sense of lack.
Silence, or rather the practice of silent reflection, saved me — and later transformed me. Because I learnt to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It was in silence that I remembered what I have when I felt that I had ‘nothing’ material left except for $16 to my name. For me, the practice of silence provides a great sources of strength and takes the form of daily meditation, daily long-hand journalling, hugging trees, solo walks in the park, slow run on the beach (no headphones on!) etc. Unless we consciously create the space for silence, we deny ourselves the space to reflect — to ask ourselves why we do what we do, why we live how we live. ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’, said the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche. Recent studies have also shown that silence benefits our brain chemistry by growing new cells (study) and decrease stress by lowering blood cortisol levels and adrenaline (study)
Turning down the volume knob in life is very possible on a daily basis, in small doses which all add up to yielding huge paybacks. The trick is to integrate them into what we already do, so resistance from the mind and body is minimal. My practice of daily meditation, morning and night — and journalling may not be your cup of tea. Here’s what you could do:
- Start your day right by sitting up for 1 minute in silence and setting the intention for the day ahead. Then get off your bed.
- End the day well by sitting in silence for 1 minute and recount one thing that you are thankful for that day before you sleep. Then lie down and do 3 deep exhalations before you sleep to help release any stress that you are still carrying before you close your eyes.
- Eat with gratitude by taking half a minute to take 3 deep breaths and give a silent thank you for the food you are about to have (I always thank the farmers amongst others) before every meal.
- Walk and breathe consciously, and observe the trees and plants around you in this garden city.
Self care is not ‘natural’ to us because we are conditioned to put others first — that’s what a ‘good and nice person’ does. Sitting on top of this narrative is the anxious treadmill of busyness so taking care of ourselves gets pushed to the last of priorities and we end up running around on empty. Self care is not selfish or self-indulgent — it is self acceptance without which we continue to rely on others to give us our sense of place in the world, like I did up to my colossal collapse. Born with an eye defect that invited taunting and nary a date through my teenage years whilst given a birth name that means ‘stop’ because I should have been a boy, acceptance was not the first thing that greeted me when I came into this world. Acceptance came aplenty when I did well in school, work and life but I never did accept myself. The first time I truly looked into the mirror was when the eye defect was finally corrected — I was 30. And it took the collapse 9 years later, stripped of all the external labels of ‘worth’, that ‘forced’ me to ask these questions: What would I do differently now if I choose to accept that I am worthy and valuable? How would I speak to myself? What am I be grateful for? Who would I spend time with? What boundaries would I set? What would I eat, and how? How would I unwind? What would I do less of? What would I do more of? What makes me come alive? What do I stand for?
I hatched a self care plan to nurse myself back to health at every level and committed to living my life in three non-compromising thirds since — 1/3 work, 1/3 self development and 1/3 service to humanity. With each third, there are regular practices and activities, right down to having different colours on my calendar to denote activities relating to all three-thirds so that a red flag is raised if my weekly planner looks too monotone. Yes, I schedule into my calendar my meditation/yoga practice, beach runs, time with family, volunteering, Facebook time, reading/going to library alongside my coaching sessions, work meetings for Hush and the other projects etc. Because, meeting ‘me’ is as important as meeting my coaching clients.
The alarming number of executives at Hush TeaBar sessions that we conduct at different workplaces who shared that they cannot remember the last time they spent time with themselves speaks of the importance of introducing self care as part of workplace wellbeing.
Self care is essential for us all, but looks different from person to person. For a start, you may wish to ask those questions above like I did and listen to what comes up for you. Design and experiment with your self care plan, observe if and when it changes the way you live and work — and adjust accordingly. Discipline and determination are vital for self care (it’s more than a bubble bath!) because you have to be stronger than your excuses.
Social inclusion was the epiphany I had when I realised what the ‘gift’ of being ‘marginalised’ in my early years was for. Because for me, the empathy for ‘the other’ is innate. Active volunteerism saved me from the downward slippery road because it increased my motivation by giving a sense of accomplishment and meaning. Then there is the ‘The Happiness Effect’ from the release of dopamine when we help others!
This purpose with social inclusion led me from active volunteering with UNIFEM (now UN Women), IDEA, Soup Kitchen, Very Special Arts Singapore, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Bankers Vision, VisionFund, aLife, Northlight School, Society for WINGS, Daughters of Tomorrow, NCSS, NVPC, Cedar Girls’ Secondary School… to social entrepreneurship with Hush TeaBar, A Good Space, Our Tree Stories, Project Yoga-on-Wheels, Playgrond of Joy and Circle of Bliss. Finally, in December 2013, I took my last corporate paycheck as a regional Managing Director of a UK-listed company to pursue my aspirations to bring about more social inclusion, wholeheartedly.
Many assumed I must have millions in the bank to quit from such a lucrative job (especially coming from the financial distress that I was in). Wealth (and status) is not an absolute, it is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow ‘poorer’ — whatever our resources. Conversely, every time we are satisfied with what we have, we are counted as rich — however little we may have. I have some savings but the $16 episode was another learning that life satisfaction comes not from how much I have in the bank but how little I need to live and give joyfully and meaningfully.
There is no lack of giving opportunities in Singapore in whichever sector and location that you feel more inclined towards. Check out our national giving portal at www.Giving.sg and/or come make meaningful and inspiring connections (mostly free events) at A Good Space (www.agoodspace.org) — a not-for-profit community initiative to bring disparate communities together.
Many studies have also shown that volunteers reported lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being (study). Start with where you are with what you have when you can — the key is to sustain the engagement because we always receive more than what we give.
There are many days when I wish I have a magic wand to remove all the suffering, especially of those with mental afflictions, around me. My team mate at Hush once shared with me what having depression is like: “I feel like I’m treading water in the open ocean all the time just to stay afloat with no shore in sight — and then I finally get so tired that I have to let go and let myself drown. That’s when I feel like I just want to end it all.”
The second thing I would do with this wand is to make everyone be grateful so we appreciate what we have and therefore will have room for more — and remove the current default setting of always seeing first what is wrong with fear and anxiety and feeling that we will never have enough. Even the official narrative needs to change from ‘we are a small island with nothing so we must keep charging ahead to survive or die’ to ‘we have come this far because we believe we have what we need to thrive’!
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of its members are poor and miserable.” — Adam Smith
Indeed, how can we be happy if so many of us are not? I’m grateful every day for having come out on the right side of that deep dark slide, and am now thriving in spirit because of that crucible. Yet I connect with the pain and suffering of every story I listen to and often think it’s twisted irony that we still have a poverty challenge of the wellbeing kind to deal with as one of the world’s richest countries.
How can we make mental health a priority rather than leave it languishing in the shadows, both at the personal and national level? What can we do for the many who are suffering? How can we care more?