My Mindful Week- Day 1: Dealing with Past Disappointments

We’ve all been there. It’s 3am on a Saturday night and you’re laying in a comfy bed, and as much as you want to get some shut-eye, your mind is going 120km/h thinking about all the mistakes you’ve done in the past or the hurt people inflicted upon you.

If only you’d tried a little more, she could’ve stayed. If only you knew better then, you wouldn’t be three knuckles deep in debt and about to lost all your savings right now. If only your boss hadn’t underestimated your working ethics or your friend hadn’t insulted you in front of the whole party. If only…

But these repeating loops of cassetted memories? They are just pointy, deadly knives. The more you replay them, the deeper you drive these knives into your own heart.

And you don’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that.

There’s a way to learn from these memories, but bleeding your heart by replaying them over and over and over is not it.

Here’s how I’ve learnt to cope with creeping past disappointments and hurt using mindfulness:

  • The first thing you’ll want to do is to acknowledge that disappointment. It’s natural for you to want to just brush it off, sweep it under the rug with other hundreds of past heartbreaks in the attic of your heart chambers. While it’s the mind’s way of keeping itself sane, the growing dust will eventually build up and burst one day. It’s better to acknowledge it and deal with it rather than bottling it up (duh).
  • Breathe in and out and be aware of your breathes. When you breathe in, say, “I’m breathing in.” When you breathe out, say, “I’m breathing out.”
  • Do not chastise yourself for stabbing your own heart. This is very critical because many of you tend to hate yourself for reliving past mistakes on top of the wound that such an act inflicts on your emotional bearings. Don’t blame yourself for it. Instead, just acknowledge the fact that you are reliving past memories and that you are feeling negative emotions. (this might take as long as 15 to 20 minutes for difficult memories, but breathe in and out through everything. You’ve got this.)
  • Breathe in and out some more.
  • After acknowledging the presence of those negative emotions, look at your past self in the memory. If you want to, look deeply into that self. Most of the time, you made that particular mistake because you were young, naïve, didn’t know any better. Or it was motivated out of fear, fear of being rejected, of being alone or any one of the hundreds manifestations of fear. Don’t judge that past self. Just acknowledge the reasons behind your action back then.

If you’re still mad for not getting into that one specific scholarship program, just look at your past self that was applying for it. Did you try your best? If yes, what else could you have done but your best? If not, why didn’t you try your best? Were you too stressed out with other areas of your life? Did you fear giving it all out and realizing you were never enough anyway? Did you fear failure? Were you afraid of what people were going to say about your failing to get in? Most of the time, everything just boils down into fear. We’re such fearful creatures, but that’s alright. Just acknowledge that part of your nature while breathing in and out and smile at it. Fear can only be replaced by understanding. Just shed the light of acknowledgement at that fear, and you will suddenly feel a little lighter, more alive. As you continue to practice, you might even grow to want to hug your younger self much like how you’d hug a scared child after they think they’ve done some horrible mistake like breaking an expensive cup and are scheming of the best way to run away from home forever because to be honest, aren’t we just children who are scared and lost?

  • Don’t forget to be aware of your in and out breathes through everything. Sometimes, you can get carried away by your thoughts. Don’t blame yourself for it. It’s a habit and you can certainly get better bit by bit. Just gently get back to being aware of your breathes every time you’ve wandered.
  • Finally, remind yourself that this is in the past and that it cannot hurt you anymore. You’ve survived it. Even if there are facets of it that you would love to change, you literally can’t. Until the scientists have figured out a way to travel back in time, you’re stuck with the present moment. Those things happened, and that’s that. Look at it with the eye of mindful non-judgement, smile at your younger self, and get back into the present reality where you truly belong.

If you have trouble following your breathe mindfully, it might be useful to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions here.

This is part of My Mindful Week series. Read about its importance here

My Mindful Week: Intro

Close your eyes, relax your mind and let your thoughts wander to the happiest memory from your childhood. The image might be a bit blurry around the edges, but you are able sense the distinct sound of rain falling, lightly pitter pattering on the metal roof above your head. You’re 8 years old.
You just got up 15 minutes ago, and you’re enjoying a morning cartoon on your local TV channel. This is a rainy Sunday so you will probably spend it playing pretend in the alleyway with a few of the neighbourhood kids. At this exact moment though, eight-year-old you are not thinking about what you did wrong yesterday, or what you have to do to impress your playmates this afternoon; you’re just contentedly fixate your gaze upon the cheap TV screen.
At that moment, you’re happy to just be.

Your version of a happy childhood memory might be different from mine, but I believe we all have one with much-or-less the same essence. When we were younger, even with perhaps a shorter attention span, we were much more attuned to our surroundings. Everything, from the fluttering of a yellow flower petal in the breeze, to the colorful reflected city lights after a light evening rain amused our little hearts. It didn’t really take much to make us enjoy the moment; sometimes we are entertained just by swinging on our hammock as hard as possible.

But then we grew up.
We became more fixated on the future or the past.

We start to fret about what might go wrong in the future, justifying to ourselves that we are preparing for the worst case possible; I mean, isn’t that what adults supposed to do? Fretting and preparing all the time?

We are also frequently caught up with past events- embarrassments and heartaches. It takes much more to amuse us; as if happiness is a carrot pulled over our heads with an invisible sting, always insight, yet perpetually out of touch.

For the longest time, I’d been searching for a way to get back into that childhood stupor where everything, even the most mundane as a dusty shop sign was fascinating, where one’s senses are highly attuned the happenings of the outside world, where one’s capacity to enjoy life is infinite. Even without evidence to back it up, I have this inkling that the capacity to commit one hundred percent of our mind and body to a moment is the happiest state a human being can attain, with our inner turmoil and flaws. Some philosophers and researchers actually back up this notion.

download“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the famous author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (which I highly recommend), “and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

Further explained in his book is how one can channel one’s attention to get into the “flow” state where one loses consciousness of oneself, and immersed in the experience at hand, not unlike how you forget about your chubby arms and just dance to the rapture of a tune when you were a toothless child.

Susan Sontag, a famous author and speaker has this to say regarding attention in her Vassar College Commencement Speech, 2003 (link here):

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. . . . Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

 

It really doesn’t take well-respected thinkers to convince us that attention is the key to life.

Just take a brief pause and look over your shoulder to the path of your life.

Why do some memories stick out more than others? Yes, because we were paying attention to it.

Why do companies spend billions of dollars devising strategies to grab our attention to their ads, even resorting to using sublime messages? Yup, attention. If they can control where our attention goes to, they can to a certain extend control our decisions.

I sincerely believe that our attention is not made to deal with the bombardment of so many attention-grabbing ads we encounter every single day. A normal city dweller today has enough excitement to last a 10th century Angkorian for a lifetime. Our inboxes are flowing with “urgent” stuff that needs our attention. Our newsfeed is pasted all over the place with injustice, issues, and events that claim to deserve our attention. But in the midst of this chaotic whirlwind of notifications, what do YOU want to pay attention to? What do you want to prioritize? It’s time like this that the practice of mindfulness is all the more vital.

It’s surprising, considering the fact that Cambodian claims to be a Buddhist country, yet it takes me, as a Cambodian citizen, 20 years to get acquainted with this simple concept of Buddhism (from a Vietnamese monk living in exile in the United States nonetheless). Again, just to clarify, mindfulness is not a religious practice. If you’re like me, who’s not all that into religions, just think of it as a life hack.

So why mindfulness? But most importantly, what is mindfulness?

To state it clearly and simply, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what is happening outside and inside of oneself. It’s a very simple concept; one that is very easy to grasp intellectually, but quite difficult to integrate into our daily lives.

Our heads especially as adults have the tendency to flutter away from our feet. We fret over the reason why someone would insult us in a classroom a week ago, or we are anxious about how our date would go this evening, or what would we do when we finally graduate. What if we fail this class? What if we can’t find a satisfying job? What if we are left behind while all our friends get on with the rides of their successful lives?

We are so caught up with our worries and anxieties that we forget to listen to the chirping of the birds outside of our windows, or the presence of our close friends going on and on about their days right beside us. We always think that maybe some time in the future, we might finally have time to enjoy our lives, but the circular pattern draws on. Once we get to that “future”, we will still be fretting over the future of “that future”.

Until one day, death comes and we’re gone.

 

 

The only reality that is available to us is this moment right here and right now, and if we don’t live here, when can we be alive? In the past where everything is a memory, or in the future which consists of only projections?

To chain our mind down to the present reality, our breathing comes in handy. We don’t need to buy a new gadget, or go somewhere exotic to get in touch with life.

Just breathe.

 

Notice how you are breathing in, and how you are breathing out. Notice the presence of things around you, the people chattering away, the smell of air, the odd chances that we are alive right here right now. Notice the feelings boiling inside you. Maybe you’re scared; maybe you’re contented. Just notice them,

and breathe.

 

If you don’t buy into the above claims, consider this solid research. Several researchers have found out that meditation, and mindfulness practice DO have a physical effect on our brain.

Mindfulness meditation was found to bring about the thickening of some brain regions associated with attention, interception, and sensory processing. It might even lead to the offset of our brain thinning that normally happens as we age [1]. That doesn’t even need a long time practice to take effect, as a matter of fact, another research with only an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found an increase in their participants’ left sided brain regions which are associated with the reduction in anxiety and an increase in immune system [2].

Relationship-wise,  mindfulness-based programs were also found to increase happy couples’ closeness, satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, acceptance and decrease their relationship distress. Furthermore, individually, those couples found their optimism, spirituality, relaxation increased and their psychological distress decreased. The effect even holds up 3 months after the evaluation [3].

Research after research has also found that mindfulness practice increase family connection. (I won’t be getting into that today, because let’s face it, we’re all pretty much non-married. However, the reference to the research journals in included just in case you want to dive in further [4]).

Now, onto juicier stuff. Mindfulness training has been found to increase the relapse prevention in substance abuse by enabling people to treat urges as simply urges without caving into them [5]. It’s also believed to actually reduce distress associated with pain; thereby, reducing the perceived pain [6].

Mindfulness practice was also tied to relapse prevention of major depression episode among chronically depressed people [7]. And because of its non-judgemental nature, it also indirectly leads to relaxation and stress reduction [8].

Given the growing track record of the benefits of mindfulness, I think we should all take a closer look at this champion right here. I mean, if there’s proof that this method might just turn your life around, why not give it a try?

That was exactly my thought when I began to dabble into the world of mindfulness a year and a half ago, and directly or indirectly, I believe it has helped to exhilarate many facets of the growth I’ve experienced in these corresponding years. Therefore, I’d like to take this chance to share with you what I’ve practiced and believed to have helped me deal with this crazy thing we call life. However, due to its extensive length, I’m going to break each main practice into a blog post and compile it into a not-so-originally named series called My Mindful Week!

Do not expect to cure yourself of depression, anxiety, sadness and envy all in one week though (because bruh, I’m still struggling), but like I said, I hope it can help you lessen these negative experiences no matter how little. Please be aware that the series is not the final say in mindfulness (obviously). Please, please, if it is not working for you, go out, explore this wonderful practise on your own- visit a mindfulness therapist, ordain as a monk, read a book or nine about it- dig deeper! The series is only meant to be a personal sharing of the practises I’ve found useful and most of them are from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (go dig deeper about this guy, like seriously).

Also, another thing before ending this nearly 2k word article, mindfulness is a habit; it’s a way of life. It’s taken literally decades for Thich Nhat Hanh (a monk) to be a master of it, and  me one year and a half to realize the little change I’ve experienced. My point is that you will grow very frustrated and bored and probably doubtful of these practises, but please please hold on out until you are sure you can’t take it anymore and then hold out some more because it’s literally changed my life and no doubt many others’ around the world throughout history.

Well, that’s all for now, fellas! I hope you have a great sleep today, because our training will start tomorrow morning and it’ll be simple but not quite easy (it’s pretty hard). Good luck on your journey!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi, Wolfie.

Although it is usually not expressed out-loud, we have all been there. You know, the whole being jealous of a close friend who’s got yet another promotion that permits her to travel and earn a shit load of money at the same time, or being bitter about somebody else’s achievement especially when you’ve failed in that very same endeavour a few times in a row.

More often than not, we suppress these feelings- chastising ourselves all the while for daring to even feel anything negative regarding our beloved friends, or a complete stranger who just happens to be so much better than us in some endeavor.

 

“Why are you like this?” we would ask ourselves, “You monster!”

 

The societal expectation for us to be a “nice” person has conditioned us to critically scold ourselves as soon as any negative feelings bubble up. Our brain knows it’s wrong to feel all these, but our heart still feels them anyway. What do we do then? We end up not allowing ourselves to be anything less than bubbly, cheery, and fun to be around.

When we are sulking, angry, disappointed, malcontent, or envious, it feels wrong. We feel… guilty.

I don’t know about you, but I know I have, and for the longest time, I feel so awfully fake. I feel like there’s so much rage, so much negative emotions inside, yet I have to put out a “cool” exterior.

“No one must know,” I would tell myself, “They would hate you, you monster!”

You can say that’s yet another manifestation of perfectionism- when you expect yourself to only feel perfectly happy emotions, all the freaking time.

A week ago, I came a cross a video. Basically, it states that there are two wolves inside each and every one of us- a blue, and a red wolf. The blue wolf is our bright side- happy, bubbly, motivated, and passionate whereas the red wolf contains all of the envy, jealousy, anger, and insecurities.

If you were anything like me, you would pamper your blue wolf, feeding it, petting it, and praising it all the time.

“Who’s a good boy?” He certainly is!

The red wolf, however, gets neglected. You wouldn’t even acknowledge it sitting by the corner, waiting patiently for your attention. You would pretend it didn’t even exist. When it came running, howling for your attention, you would scold it, disown it, rationalize yourself into believing that your neglect is justified.

And that’s wrong.

How so?

Because no matter how long you turn your back on the red wolf, it will still be there, probably sulking. It will very likely grow angrier by the minute, plotting the next ambush. When the raid comes, you feel the negative feelings all at once, usually more intense than the last anger fit.

The cycle goes on and on. The red wolf comes, you beat it. It becomes more revengeful, and comes again, and you beat it yet again.

And do you know what the red wolf wants most?

You might think it wants to ruin your life, or make you a cynical person. Nope. Not at all. It is only a group of emotions. Emotions don’t become anything if you don’t act upon it.

The red wolf only wants your acknowledgement. That’s it. Maybe, it wants you to finally look at it in the eyes, and say, “Hey, boy!”

That’s it.

Because as hard as it may be for us to believe, the red wolf is a part of us, too. We can never get rid of it. No matter how hard we try to deny ourselves, we will always be capable of feeling angry, envious, and sad. To expect ourselves to be otherwise is foolish.

Likewise, Thich Nhat Hanh taught that when we find ourselves feeling negative emotions, don’t fight them. Don’t ignore them.

Just acknowledge them.

Say, “I’m feeling angry right now.”

Maybe, you might want to find an explanation for your anger. Maybe, you don’t. Whatever your course of action is, just merely acknowledging your “bad” side is enough.

When you finally allow the red wolf to come creeping near the camp fire, maybe just slouching around. When you finally accept that it’s a part of your nature, you will finally find a sense of wholeness. Allow yourself to feel all the dimensions of your complex human nature.

Now, turn around, and say hi to that red wolf of yours!

Buddhism: Bye Bye

As a Cambodian citizen, born and raised, you see, your life is pretty much influenced by Buddhism. More than 95% of the people here are Buddhist… you get the point. You are brought to pagodas in nearly every religious holidays (Khmer New Year, Bon Pchum, Bon Pisak, etc). However, just like how Christianity has die-hard believers and meh believers, so does Buddhism. You see, my parents are half Chinese, but Alas! They see themselves as more Chinese than some of my “true” Chinese friends. It gives them a proud identity to take on, i presume. Anyhow, having been raised in a Chinese household, they are not “die hard” fans of Buddhism, per se. Thus to me, Buddhism is like a far-fetched daydream- vague but always there. Continue reading Buddhism: Bye Bye

iZombie Apocalypse: the Symptoms

What comes to your mind when you read the title and adding it to a Phnom Penh context? A freshly wounded zombie hunting for a yummy brain like the ones from RUN while holding an iPhone? Well, the zombies I am going to discuss here today will be a little bit different. They are the so-called iZombies. They don’t need your brain and don’t go around saying unintelligible words like Gah! Or Aaah! Well, they are just more human.

My friend, NyRo, once said, “y’all are zombies!” when we met over for a round of ice cream. I turned away from my phone screen (like our two other friends who turned away from their computer, and phone screens respectively) and stared dumbly at him. We didn’t have anything smart to counter, because what he said really hit the nails on our heads! Internet users in Cambodia reached 2.136.625 in 2012, a bloom of 548% from the past years! The same study found that there were 1,100 people joining Facebook everyday! There were at least 700,000 social media users back in 2012. The trend seems to be progressing, and it’s expected that the number has rose a whole lot from last year.

With the bloom of mobile devices available, and more internet connections, AN EPIDEMIC HAS BROKEN OUT! Go to any internet cafés here in Phnom Penh, and you’ll see teenagers and young adults alike staring fixedly on the screen of their devices. You go in a class, and rest assured that there’s at least one person (who is usually situated at the back of the class) staring at their phone (and is likely to be checking Facebook). You go in a restaurant and you see a family sitting together, all looking at their separate devices; kids playing games, the teens updating their Facebook status, and parents following the so-called “Facebook news”! These people are the zombies I am talking about! If you are reading this, then it is likely that you are infected already! I know I am! If you are not sure, here are the symptoms of an “izombie”:

Oh! I have to wait for class to start; better update my status!
Oh! You’re driving? Cool, let me sit at the back and destroy these candies.
Wow! Time to sleep? Let me look at his/her profile just one last time. (besides, sleep is for the weak.)
I just passed by Angkor Hotel! Let’s check in! (You don’t want to waste any opportunity, do you?)
We’re going on a trip tomorrow? Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to take all the photos. (and share them on social media websites later on,duh)
I’ll have a lemon juice, please. Thanks, and what’s your wifi password?

Sounds familiar enough? If your answer is yes, read on. If your answer is no, you’re lying; admit it, it was a yes! Don’t be sad though, most people are the same. We are not fools, we know how helpful technology is and how it has changed our (social) life for the better. Those games, blogs, Facebook feeds have given us so much information and entertainment. I can go full on with an essay on all the advantages of technology, but I am sure we all agree on the ground that we need technology (and our devices). However, when it comes to a point when you literally can’t stand over being away from your phone, or checking your news feed/playing your game (cough-cough Hayday) even when you are on the toilet, then it’s high time for an intervention.

If you are still not convinced that too much staring-at-your-devices is harmful, here are some more disadvantages of doing so (I am going to cut over all the health crap, because let’s face it, we don’t give a lick about it):

  1. facebookYou miss out on your social interaction: having a social media account to keep up on current events and your friends’ activities from afar is alright, but clutching your phone and looking at it in the presence of friends is a no-no. A lot of people prefer to chat with their old friends through Facebook even when they have people in front of them in flesh! Here are all the opportunities to make REAL social interactions, and possibly more friends, and you lose it over your phone. All these amazing people and stories behind them ready to be unveiled and you miss it because you are too busy being fixated by your best friend’s photo of a Chattime drink.
  2. Are you masking? Sometimes, you don’t really need to check your news feed, or play your game, you want to mingle with the real folks in front of you. However, they look too intimidating and unfriendly; for the fear of rejection, you pretend you have some amazing things happening inside your phone! Fear of rejection is only one of the causes.
    doge Some people, however, like to show off their devices. Their Hayday imaginary cows could have waited, but no, they had to dive in and get it all organized, so that other people would know they had enough money to afford an Ipad; or some just want to look cool holding an expensive device. Honey, if you need a lifeless disposable 250cm by 190cm box of plastic that squeaks silly noises to feel better about yourself, then you have some serious self-esteem issues! Masking all these deep psychological issues aren’t going to make them go away, they will still be there! You are focusing your attention on hiding the wound rather than healing the wound!
  3. YOU MISS THE MOMENT: Thinh Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk, said happiness comes from living in the moment.

    “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. (21)”
    Thích Nhất Hạnh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

    You might be there thinking like: he’s a monk, his words ain’t got no scientific proofs! Well, if thousands of devoted Buddhists isn’t a good enough proof, let’s take a look at this. A Harvard doctoral student, Matt Killingsworth, through an app called Track Your Happiness has gathered scientific information for his research on happiness. The result is his breakthrough PhD paper concerning happiness and living in the moment. Basically, he concludes that you live happiest when you focus on the moment. If you are interested in this topic, Killingsworth’s Ted Talk may very well be the starting point of your quest! So to sum it up, if you are not living in the moment (but are rather concerned about what your friend is having for lunch) then you are being less happy than you might have been in the moment.

You might have noticed that every situations I mentioned happens when you are supposed to be doing something, but you hold your phone instead. You see, I am not opposed to using your phone when you have free time on your hands, but if it dominates every single minute of your life, then you, my friend, is already infected. Now go away before I drive an axe through your head.

No, I’m just kidding (of course, I am). If you have just realized you are an iZombie, and you want to be disinfected, then stay tuned for our next post: iZombie Apocalypse: the Cure.