Full Circles

Reflections on Living

Author: Daryl Chow, MA, Ph.D. (page 1 of 6)

Befriending Grief

The experience of grief is not something we would ask for. Grief does not ask for our permission to exist.

Grief is not only losing something or someone outside of our selves. When we lose someone we love, we lose a part of ourselves. It is heartrending.

Steeped in our everyday exchanges , we are sublimated not to think about death. In my Chinese tradition, some might say it’s bad luck to speak about dying. In response, we say “Choi,” in Cantonese, to ward off the words – or even just having those thoughts – articulated.

You could say that reckoning with grief is like trying to stare at the sun. If you look at it directly, it blinds you. But, it illuminates everything. Our world revolves around it.

That’s because Grief has a twin called Love.

Someone who has worked in palliative care and author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul Stephen Jenkinson says this,

“Grief is a way of loving that which has slipped from view…
and love is a way of grieving that which it has not yet done so.”


And if we can stand in the sun and take this in for a minute, I believe this will lead us to a place of love again.

Put another way, befriending grief on a daily basis passes us through a threshold from floating along in live to a certain sense of wakefulness.

Like the emphasis we give to our dental hygiene, what we need now is a society of individuals who values and engages in the process of waking up on daily – twice a day.

Wakefulness is the a hidden prerequisite to presence.

And what constitutes this contemplation of daily waking up? To be a practitioner of grief.

This is not a grim and austere exercise. Instead, it rends our hearts open to reality… a reality that doesn’t need our consent, that life is finite. Because of its finality, evermore the poignancy of our living.

Buy a flower and put it on your dining table. Its presence differs to a plastic creation. The living flower will wither, the fake models what’s real, but never so. Yet, the flower’s existence penetrates into our consciousness (and if we learn to take it in) of both its temporalness and its gravity of beauty.

A way to grief is to slow down time to love, and a way to love is to befriend grief.

 

See related: Love’s Near Other–Loss

Drive like a Grandma

Here’s a suggestion: When you are on the road, drive like a Grandma.

 

Let the other people overtake you. Let them drive faster than you. Let them get to the traffic light first.

 

Go even further, wave to let them get ahead of you–simply because you can be graceful.

 

No need to rush, because rushing gets you to your destination maybe 2 mins earlier, but costs you the weight of agony–and a flustered face when you reach you destination.

 

Do you notice how people drive different in dense cities compared to the driving behaviour in less populated places? People aren’t assholes. We underestimate how much of an influence context shape our behaviour.

 

When you are on the road, you get to be either like the lot of us driving as if we are always late for the 5th job interview, mubbling to ourselves how idiotic others are when they drive… Or, we get to be the minority that counteracts the norm.

 

If we see what the norm is, everyone is trying to get ahead in every sense of the word.

 

Mark Twain said,

“The moment you are on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

 

A grandmother knows how to take the time, knows how to be present, and is not about to travel at the speed of light. A grandmother sees things that you might miss. When you travel at the speed of light, you just might miss life.

Do Not Focus on The Self

 While it may seem contradictory for me as a practicing psychologist to invoke this paradox, this is perhaps an elemental idea we need to learn to embrace. 

Many self-help books promote the development of the self. However, an over-emphasis on the self is a wellspring of suffering. 

Instead, focus on two things:
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Father-Figure and The Good Ancestor

I watched a 4-part documentary called 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki. It was based on the renowned japanese anime director (known for his movies like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neigbor Totoro). I’m not exactly a huge fan of anime, but his storytelling in his films and creative process captivated me.
 

I was struck by two things:

  1. His par excellent devotion to the craft.
  2. He was a lousy father.

 

His adult son works with him in Studio Ghibli. His son premiered one of his very own film. Midway through the show, Hayao is seen walking out of the cinema. Hayao speaks to the director of the documentary and says, “His show is too similar to my work… He shouldn’t make a film based on his emotions.” When the crowd comes out, someone walks to Hayao and says, “”(Your son) has made quite a philosophical film…” but Hayao walks away. Hayao then speaks to the documentarian, “You have to change the world with film… Otherwise, what’s the point?”

The painful part about Hayao’s assessment was that he might be right… and entirely disconnected from his role as a father.

 

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Point Your Camera to the World

In fact, tape away the self-pointing lens.

Change the focus from the Self and to the World, and then let the world teach you.

As writer John O’Donohue notes,

Love begins with paying attention to others, with an act of gracious self-forgetting. This is the condition in which we grow.
(From Anam Cara, p. 28).

When we take pictures of ourselves, our cognitive resources are channelled towards ourselves. The big trade-off when we become self-absorbed, we miss opportunities for what the world can teach us.

In virtual video meetings, once you’ve checked you are in the frame, it pays off to turn off the self-view. It is cognitively taxing to see yourself when you are supposed to pay attention to the other, as you would in face to face conversations.

Take pictures or videos of the world outside, and–is is the important bit–pay attention.

Take this as a metaphor to live by. Pay attention to the people and the world outside, and the make the picture good.

How Do You Tell If a System is Sick?

How do you tell if an organisation is sick?

It treats the people who delivers the service solely as a means as to an end.

It fails to notice that those who give care, also needs to be part of a community of care.

It dispenses wellbeing gift wrapped and surrounded with the rah-rah cheerleading of “Self-Care,” and not address the need for communal caring.

Ultimately, the greatest violation is the violation of the dignity of the human spirit.

An organisation that is sick is not able to heal those they seek to heal. Rather, they perpetuate a disease.

An organisation that is designed to help others needs to makes sure that people who are in the caring profession are cared for.

The moment we push for more, as if we are productive bots, we engage in a form of violence.

Here’s Thomas Merton talking about this exact issue more than 50 years ago.

 

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

~Thomas Merton

 

We don’t know how to rest

We don’t know how to rest.

We think that resting is for the lazy, the inefficient and the ineffective.

Yet when we think we are resting, our eyes are entranced by the endless scroll of news, clickbaits and social media feeds.

When we allow ourselves into the territory of rest, it also comes with the neighboring challenges of learning how to be bored, how to incubate, and how to retreat.

In his stirring book Consolations,[1] teacher and poet David Whyte illuminates vital points on the topic of Rest:

To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given. 

When we say being “authentic,” what we really mean is what we perceive as the best version of our selves. Thus, it would make sense that if we want to allow who we really are to come to the fore, rest is the quiet preparation that we need.

David Whyte goes on to flesh out Rest’s 5 stages:

1. Stop

In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we have been doing or how we have been being. 

Besides the red-light at the traffic junction, when was the last time you intentional stopped yourself in your tracks to take a moment… to stop?

2. Return Home

If we have trouble stopping, we would have trouble seeing.

In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body’s un-coercedand un-bullied [emphasis mine] self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. 

I am fond of the words of Whyte’s close friend, the late John O’ Donahue, “Stress is our perverted relationship with time.” 

This perversion manifests in forms of anxious productivity, as if everything at hand has an urgency that pushes you to the point that you are no longer free. We think we are are stealing time, but the truth is, the real thievery happens to you.

Back to David Whyte’s third stage of rest:

3. Heal

In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival.

I would argue that without the conscious act of stopping and returning home to the inhabitant of our body “un-coerced and unbullied,” it is hard to heal; the tyranny of our speed of life is that it creates a harsh inner-terrain that is not conducive for repair, rejuvenation and re-vitalisation.

4. Breath

In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the in-and-out breath, is the give-and-take, the blessing and the being blessed and the ability to delight in both.

Someone recently told me about their experience of their smart watch. It alerted her when she was tipping over to be over-stressed and reminded her to doing some mindfulness exercises.

With or without a smart watch, we all need little moments of catching our breath, to breathe the life that that we have.

5. Presence

The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous movement.

The call to presence is a gift-exchange between you and life.

Meanwhile, we wrestle with the tension that there’s always something more important than now. Yet, the existence of any future is contingent of the present.

Presence is a cumulation of our intentional act of stopping, slowing, healing and breathing. Try to force yourself to be present without a practice of the above is like trying to complete the Ironman triathlon without getting out of your couch.


Rest for Rest-Sake

Being an Asian born into a thriving place like Singapore, top performance, hard work, and little sleep are the lifestyle badge of honor. My wife says that I may have left Singapore, but I don’t seem to be able to leave the Singaporean in me.

But I’m discovering—especially as I watch my kids grow—that this side of me needs to be tampered.

The Japanese have a word for un-rest—when you overwork yourself to death, literally—they call it Karoshi.

I don’t want karoshi. Nobody wants karoshi. I worry about my friends back home who work like 12-hr days, along week long…

Rest need not be an instrumental reason to take a break (“I’d be more productive, or more focused, etc.”). Rest has goodness in and of itself, which is a true testament of its value and worth.

In periods of rest, we also need to cloister, as judge Raymond Kethledge and CEO Michael Erwin puts it, to have “no inputs from other minds.”[2]

So sleep, take a nap, go for a walk, hop on a bus, lay on the grass at the backyard and stare at the clouds that look like bunnies; do nothing. Learn how to rest by doing.

Stop being that amateur sportsperson who just keeps going and doesn’t know how that we need both stress and recovery in order to build strength, until he tears a muscle. Turn pro by behaving like the pros.

Stress is not the problem; a lack of recovery is.

Rest to recover. Honor Rest the way we give the badge of honor to hard work. Nature has it that we grow when we rest deeply.

When we fail to take heed of our natural rhythms, we expose ourselves to getting burned. Burnout is really cumulative and amplified stress plus the lack of recovery, multiplied by the unrealistic expectation of time and our biology.

Put in an equation,

Burnout = (high and continuous stress – recovery) x Unrealistic expectations


For more about how experts rest, read Instead of the 10,000-hr rule, why not the 60-hr rule?

And for more on Self-Care for practitioners, check out our Frontiers archives.


“Pause My Ambition”

Here’s a relevant journal entry I made some months ago.

I've been feeling exhausted the last few weeks. 

For every in-between pockets of time, I milked dry whatever I can complete. Reply an email, send an invoice, finish a case note before the next client, read a research paper, write a paragraph... 
I felt like a theft of time. 

So today, on a brink of my collapse due to my own undoing, I made a conscious decision: "pause my ambition."

It's an odd mantra. For one, I have never seen myself as an "ambitious" person. Nevertheless, this spoke to me. The truth was, over the years, I have been pushing myself to get too much done in a day. 

"Pause my ambition," when I am with my family.

"Pause my ambition," when I need to think clearly.

"Pause my ambition," when my body collapses; there's no other way.

Footnotes:
[1] Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte
[2] Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin.

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Parenting is…

1. An amateur sport. The moment you think you’ve turned pro, the rules change.

2. To experience little daily deaths. This grief process is one of letting go of expectations, “supposed tos,” assumptions of how kids and family life should be.

3. A bliss and a blister. It’s the greatest source of suffering. It’s also the greatest wellspring of joy. (So you can tell, I don’t buy the one-sided view that “parenting is such a bliss” idea, although I can appreciate some parents do truly feel this way!)

4. The intersection between the sacred and the secular. It’s a virtuous circle that constantly reminds you of the giddy reality of daily living, that some semblance of soulfulness is required.

5. Improvisation (originates from the Latin ‘improvisus’, meaning ‘not seen ahead of time’). Life is one big improvisation anyway, a 2 left-footed dance between plans rendered useless and surprises that behold gifts waiting to be opened.

6. A fermentation process of maturity. Not because we become wiser teachers to our children, but because we are hit with the stark realisation that we are called to become better students. Daily.

7. A mirroring of the gift of paradox that permeates through life. The parenting paradox is this: we aim create a strong emotional attachment with our kids, so that one day, they wouldn’t need us.

 

YOUR TURN: PARENTING IS…?

Have You Eaten?

I could never quite figure out the social sequence of a greeting in Australia. 

“How are you?”

“Good. And you?”

“Good, thanks.”

To me, that’s bizarre. 

One of my first few days at my clinical practice after moving from Singapore to Australia, I walked passed my colleague at frontdesk and said, “Hey Tandy! Have you eaten?” I don’t think you need to be a psychologist to figure out that the contorted eyebrows tells you you’ve just asked a rather peculiar question.

“Huh?”

“Oh… erm, have you eaten,” as if she had hearing difficulty.

“…erm, yes. I have.”

“Ok.”

Social conventions are cultivated like a hotpot of ingredients, people, and time. In my home country, asking someone “have you eaten,” is akin to “how are you.” It’s a hello, not an invitation to take you for lunch or tell your life-story. Even though I’m by default highly colonised by Western ways of thinking, I had some adapting to do in my social greeting. I still secretly want to ask people “have you had your lunch?”

~~~

Culture comes from the Latin cultus, which means care. Today is World Day for Cultural Diversity. We need to go beyond the notion of ‘religious tolerance’ (I mean, saying to someone “I tolerate you” is only something an embittered spouse would say to her husband who has eaten a burger with 2 serves of onions).

 

Especially in this liminal times, in every culture, we are each other’s healthcare workers. When we begin to un-quarantine ourselves, I recommend we do this through the invitation for a meal.

The table is a fine piece of technology. The table is not just a furniture. It patiently waits for you to bring people together. I propose the table to be the central architectural and spiritual force for diversity.

Want cultural diversity? Ask someone “Have you eaten? Wanna join me for a meal?” Maybe even ask your guest to “bring a plate.”*

 

Footnote: 

*Nearly 2 decades ago, when I was a student in Queensland, it took a kind-hearted Irish lady to explain to my then girlfriend-now-wife and I that bringing a plate means that we need to put some food on top of that plastic dinnerware.

Homeschooling?

A Smorgasbord of Tips to Keep Your Kids Engaged, Learning and Connected During Home Isolation.

Note: This article is cross-posted on two of my blog sites, Frontiers of Psychotherapist Development  and Full Circles. While FPD aims to help therapists, and FC is more for a general audience, I figured professionals and parents might equally benefit from this.

Click on the buttons below to receive an entire list of ideas to engage your kids during this pandemic that has affected all across the world…plus more relevant resources to dig in a little further!

DOWNLOAD THE HOMESCHOOLING GUIDE

When we were having our first child, we decided that we are going to enlist the help of a Doula. “Do-what?” you might say. Here’s an explainer.

The way I saw it, she was like our personal coach and companion before, during and after the birthing process, a critical bridgecrossing phase.

What we learned about our doula Catherine was that not only did she have 4 kids, they were all homeschooled!

Maybe your reaction is like my wife and I. How is that humanly possible to home school a kid 24/7, let alone 4?!

I can imagine Catherine’s response to us neophytes at trying to homeschool our kids during this outbreak. Truth is, from what I’ve understood from Catherine and reading books on homeschooling (e.g., I highly recommend Brave Learner by Julie Bogart or check out this website), what the majority of us are doing is nowhere near  what homeschooling really is about. It’s more like “isolated”  schooling. The “home” in homeschooling is not confined to our place of residence. It’s much more expansive than outsiders might think (If you are interested, read more about Jonathan Holt’s views on homeschooling.

But this doesn’t mean that we should throw our hands up. What are going to do stuck at home with our kids during this pandemic? Maybe you might be confronted with feeling inadequate as a parent, but the truth is, parenting is less like a fixed classical music piece with musical sheets to follow, but more like a jazz improvisational jam; you never know what’s come next.

When I first read Jonathan Holt’s seminal book, How Children Learn, I remember one of the early advice in his writing was “to trust kids.” This could not be further from my educational experience growing up in Singapore. Schools told you what to learn. What Holt, and perhaps more Montessori-typed schools promote is to be child-directed.

But if you dig a little further, Maria Montessori said,

 ”Follow your child, but follow your child as his leader.” 

 

There is no other more important thing for parent(s) to take the lead than during a critical crisis period that has swept the world.  We have to “follow your child” and their curiosity, but also dance in this fragile balance of exercising leadership.

I argue that the leadership we need as parents is to design our home environments that nurtures not only the mind, but also feed the soul with how they experience humanity and the world around us. (While we try to juggle working from home and caring for others, be it elderly parents and young ones).

The last few weeks, my family and I, like many others around the world, have been in home isolation. My wife and younger child developed symptoms of fever and cough, and the only prudent thing to do was to self-isolate for the next few weeks. We don’t know if it’s COVID-19, as they do not meet the criteria for testing, but speaking to our GP on a telehealth consult was reassuring.

 

DOWNLOAD THE HOMESCHOOLING GUIDE

We are all homeschoolers now.

Like it or not, we are all homeschoolers now. As a recent article states, this pandemic “will bring about an education reevaluation, if not revolution” of how our education system.

Majority of the ideas in this list to keep your kids engaged, learning and connected during these home-bound times were “guinea pigged” in our family of four, with our 6 and 3-year-olds. Some were figured out along the way, and many were grafted from resources I’ve picked up across the years (see below for some of the good ones), and others were employed through the years in my work with families as a therapist.

If you would like to have a buffet of ideas to engage your kids, moving beyond just “isolated” schooling and borrow some of the richness of homeschooling during this period of home isolation, click on the link below to get your FREE guide.


Do you have other tips for home schooling? Love to hear your ideas. Share them in the comments below.

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