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Reflections on Living

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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.

Anaesthetic vs. Aesthetic Experience

Reading a book is like having a deep conversation.*

Watching a movie is like experiencing vivid dreaming.

Listening to music is like hearing the sound of emotions.

Viewing a photograph or a painting is like stopping time.

All forms of art, provides an opportunity to engage in an aesthetic experience.

A doctor applies an anaesthetic when she wants the patient to feel nothing. If aesthetic is numbness, an aesthetic awareness is a door to wonderment.

So much of what we consume today is like anaesthesia. Yet, what is needed is aesthetics that un-numbs us, that provides us a waking up to the inherent beauty that is possible to be engaged with.

As Proust says, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Engaging in art has a way of clearing the fog in our eyes and waking our senses. 

Art might be “useless” in a conventional economy paradigm, but it is highly valuable from what it means to be human.


Footnote:

* If I can say anything about poetry, reading a poem is like listening to the the truth, told “slant”.

Photo by Mr TT

Do Not Find Meaning in Life

Instead, do what makes you come alive.

Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by theologian Howard Thurman. He said,

”Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

~Howard Thurman,

The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time

 

So the real question is one that we need to ask ourselves, ”what makes me come alive?

There is no right answers, but there are real answers. All of us need to cross invisible thresholds towards a new frontier, leaving behind old meanings, and into the existential page of creating *new* meaning. New meaning arises when we embrace the forms of vitality in life where we become fully alive.

 

“People say that we are seeking a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” 

~ Joseph Campbell,

from the Power of Myth

Life is too fleeting to be walking around deaden or beaten out of our true vocation in this pilgrimage, which is to be fully alive.

When death finds you and I, may it find us alive.*

Footnote:
* adapted from an African proverb.

The Invisible Essentials

Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”

~ St. Augustine

Yes, we all have invisible wounds. At the same time, what’s truly essential is also invisible to the eye. And in some sense, we wake up to joy after the ordeal of trials and tribulations.

The impulse of desire, knowing what we want, is the seed of vitality. It’s a powerful life-force inside each of us exist, if we learn to tune in, adjust and calibrate the frequencies like an old transistor radio.

This life-force within us is a creative force. Not just in an aesthetic or artistic sense, but a potent energy waiting to be nurtured and shared generously with others.

Others people would often fail to see this seed of desire within you. Only those who know you in a deep way are able to sense this providence, and only a fewer selected people—mentor, teacher, wise friend—can help unearth this with you. If you know such individuals, stay close to them. If you don’t have such individuals in your life, seek them out. Everyone on this journey needs a guide, especially in two particular phases of life:

  1. Periods of struggles and ordeal, and
  2. Periods of renewal

One way to begin tapping into this creative force is to sit with this one question, “What do you want to create in this life,” [1] and refrain from settling with familiar and norm-based responses. Because each of us, given the matrix of our unique burdens and blessings, have something remarkable to give.

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance.

“The biggest questions have already been answered”

Why bother asking the big questions in life (“What brings meaning and purpose?” or “What is a good life?”), since these questions have already been tackled by philosophers of old?

The main issue is not just having the answers, but the willingness to ask the questions, and sit with the ambiguity, patiently waiting, and using questions as an arrow to guide towards what matters most.

Everyone needs to ask the big questions. Because each person’s answers are not only different, the road that leads there needs to be traveled and discovered; it’s a pilgrimage.

No point reaching the end of your holiday destination without having traveled through the new places.

Is “How Are You?” A Greeting or a Real Question?

Since moving to Australia in 2010, I could never wrap my head around the social convention of asking each other “how are you?”

I took the question too seriously at first, and I soon realised I didn’t really need to contemplate the meaning of life as all I needed to say was “Fine thank you. And how are you?”

I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’m accepting that it’s really a hello or a G’day.

But 9 years later, I rethinking the “how are you’s.” Here’s what I think we should do to this social convention:

We should ask ourselves, on a daily basis, “How are you?”

And then patiently wait for a full-bodied felt response.

We don’t check in with ourselves enough. Most days, we are bustling around getting from one place to another, nailing down one task to another, from home care to schoolcare to the workforce. Meanwhile, we neglect to listen to our bodies.

Our mind is there to take care of the mind and the body. This is not just about being self-aware, because you can self-aware and still fail to ask fully embrace this beautiful question of “how are you.”

Hint: Like a call-and-response, if you ask this question to yourself and let it ring through from the top of your head to your pinky toes—and give yourself time—you might find yourself automatically letting out a sigh. That’s a good sign.

So, how are you?

“Will You Forgive Me?”

“The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.”

~Annie Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.

 

My spiritual director the late Fr Claude Barreteau, MEP once told me a story about a man who repeatedly climbed a hill every week to arrive a small chapel where he made his confession to a priest. He felt bad that he had been doing so for such a long time, and seemed to  make the same mistake. On the exterior, it looks like this person hasn’t learned.

But I suspect Fr Claude’s story speaks to the business of forgiveness, which is a daily affair.

Today, out of sheer frustration, I yelled at my daughter. She burst into tears. She was inconsolable. Maybe Mom would come and sooth her. I was rendered helpless. I chastised her for being rude in the first place. She cries even louder. Mom’s not coming.

Then, in exasperation and lack of ingenuity, I realised I scared her. I sat down on the floor and I said, “I’m sorry. I messed up. My loud voice must have scared you. I’m gonna try better again the next time…”

She stopped crying. She looked at me. I brought her close. Meanwhile, in my mind, I was resisting even ounce of my being to correct her faults. There’s another time for that.

For now, “will you forgive me” is enough.

We need to climb up that hill and come to our senses that “everyone is screwed up… and everyone screws up,” and come back down again.

See this video by Fred Rogers.

(If you can’t see the video above, click here.)

Older vs. Elder: Who We Can Become

Everyone becomes older. Not everyone becomes an elder.[1]

We get older by the passage of time. We do not necessarily become an elder. We get to become an elder by joining the realm of conversation, which entails deep listening and wonder.

If you are someone in the first half of life, we must invite people who are older than us into a space of being treated like an elder. This is not about naive reverence, but this type of mentoring relationship requires an earnest perspective that eventually, we will also become older one day.

If you are someone in the second half of life, make room to enter into conversation, not preach, and to listen to someone into speech. Question in order to listen, not listen in order to question.

To be the best teacher, we need to become great students.

The ultimate touchstone of our lives is not self-improvement. Ultimately, any form of self-improvement is for the benefit of others. Otherwise, self-improvement becomes a self-indulgent enterprise, purely for its own sake. The ultimate act is to grow the ability to be a witness (I prefer the word with-ness) to another.

To become an elder, we must be warmly invitational. To help the older person be treated as an elder, we must suspend what we think we know, and appreciate the lived experience of the other through sharing of stories.

Holding our ideas lightly—as if to pray not with clasped hands, but with open arms—invites others into a space that helps others see themselves in a truer light, either as an elder, or a to-be elder.

 

Notes:

[1] I first learned about this distinction from author and mythologist, Michael Meade.

On Suicide: “Do Not Make a Permanent Decision…”

Do not make a permanent decision

Image by Pablo Heimplatz

Do not make a permanent decision in a temporary storm.

 

This is one of the most compelling argument I’ve seen on the topic of suicide. This is from the poet, philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Hecht makes us rethink from a nonreligious perspective our cultural position on suicide as moral freedom:
“One of the arguments I hope to bring to light is that suicidal influence is strong enough that a suicide might also be considered a homicide. Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide (emphasis mine), both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.” ~ from her book, Stay, A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

Ripples

The evidence is clear that suicide impacts not just loved ones, but people around us. This is not to put people on a guilt trip. Instead, the empirical findings point towards reality, that we live in a web of relationships. Even a celebrities suicide has a ripple effect on others (e.g., Robbin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell).

Hecht goes on to make an important point: “Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment.”
Though suicidal ideation is different from attempting suicidal (The evidence is clear that suicidal thoughts are more common than we realise, and thoughts about suicide isn’t predictive of suicide attempts). If you are feeling vulnerable to suicide, or know of others who struggle with this, I highly recommend you check out the following, in order of priority:

1. 10 things I wish people understood about suicide

2. An interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht, on the renowned podcast and radio show, On Being with Krista Tippett

3. A short essay On Suicide 

Stay

Here are two points that stand out:

1. Staying alive is a life-saving social contribution.
2. We need to consider the rights of our future selves.

 

Here’s my plea to you: 
1. You matter more than you will know at this point.
2. Let’s figure out a way to end your problems, not your life.
3. Living is your right. You have a right to Life.

A recent Canadian study based on 2,884 people uncovered a really hopeful piece of information. Suicidal people are 7 TIMES more likely to recover completely from their mental health concerns when they have SOMEONE TO CONFIDE TO. [1]

Do not make a permanent decision in a temporary storm. Stay.

Blessings,

Daryl

~

Footnotes:
1. Baiden, P., & Fuller-Thomson, E. (2016). Factors Associated with Achieving Complete Mental Health among Individuals with Lifetime Suicidal Ideation. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 46(4), 427-446. doi:10.1111/sltb.12230

2. I am a psychologist, but I’m not your psychologist. This short article should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a mental health professional. Please seek professional help if you are at-risk, or contact your local helplines to connect with someone. The first step is to step out, because isolation hurts.
 For people in Australia, here are three helplines:
Lifeline
13 11 14 – www.lifeline.org.au – A crisis support and suicide prevention service for all Australians.
Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 – www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au – A free service for people who are suicidal, caring for someone who is suicidal, bereaved by suicide or are health professionals supporting people affected by suicide.
Kids Help Line
1800 55 1800 – www.kidshelpline.com.au

Here’s One Mental Model to Change Your Life: Press Play

 

play-pause-stop

We don’t stop playing because we grow old;

we grow old because we stop playing.” ~George Bernard Shaw

Mental models are powerful ideas to learn. They act like rules of thumb, that is, rough principles/heuristics  to guide the traffic of our minds.  The important criteria on whether to adopt a particular mental model is to evaluate, “Is this helpful?”

If you are in your thirties and above, you might recall the days of playing those bulky videotapes from a VHS machine. It requires manually forwarding and rewinding, until the tape head gets dirty and the visuals become blurry. Or you sit there, waiting for your favorite movie to play on TV, so that you can hit record (and pause when those crappy adverts appear), for many more hours of repeated viewing.

Here’s one mental model  based on this idea.


PRESS PLAY

When your life feels like is on pause, press play.
Play, do something fun, get down on the floor with a baby. Go to the beach, strum that guitar, or sing in the bathroom. tickle your partner.



PRESS PAUSE:

When life takes over and moves too fast like it’s flashing you by, press pause. Recompose, and study one frame of your life. Contemplate on it. It’s ok to take a pause.


PRESS FAST FORWARD:

When you feel stuck, it’s ok to press fast forward. Get out of the rut by stepping on the pedal to the wheels moving. Fast.


PRESS STOP:

(Ever heard a record player get stuck on the same groove on a vinyl and you just let it keep playing? It’s hypnotic).
When things play and replay in your head like a bad loop, press stop.
Then, change what is playing in the first place.

Have you ever feel like you are speeding to get to somewhere because you are late, only to meet with a red light? What do you do? You take heed of the sign, and stop. There are things not within your control. And realise the world is not about you.

Stop. Breathe. Re-treat, or just give yourself a treat.

PRESS REWIND:

Moments of transitions and change, or big events like Christmas, new year, anniversaries and birthdays, are a good time to press rewind.

Recall moments in your life that you were moved, touched and deeply grateful for. Look at pictures and journals. Put on that old song and indulge in the next few minutes. Go back in time. If you keep worrying about time, you lose time.

This is not simply nostalgia, but its a platform of creating self-continuity into your future. As the Japanese proverb goes, a good time to look at the past is on a summer’s eve.


PRESS RECORD:

Whatever the shit may be, don’t forget to press record. Then hit rewind, and play it back again. 
Learn to write things down. Date it, so that you know which time in your life you had this wisdom. To capture a moment, take a photograph. Not at yourself, but at the life that is in front of you.

Reflect:

Do you know what to press, and when?

No one strategy applies to all of life. Life has its platitudes. As the adage goes, if you hold a hammer, suddenly everything becomes a nail.

Play with this idea.

Where our attention is, that is where our life is.

Happy Christmas & a playful new year ahead.

Yours, 

Daryl Chow Ph.D.

29th of Dec 2016

 

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