Being Something For Someone Else, And Letting Someone Else Be Something For You

I invite you to watch this lovely video (“Building Community and Purpose in Life”; link below). It’s about how Mr Stephen Jon Thompson came to find his place in the world, from being an unwanted child considered a trouble-maker by the authorities.

He said so many things that ring true to me, the foremost being:

“I learnt that everyone, wants someone to be cheerin’ in their corner” ~Stephen Jon Thompson

Ain’t that the truth!

As I’ve written in my last few posts, everyone wants to belong some place or to have a place at all. This is not just a physical space, but as Mr Thompson said, having someone cheering for you.

It means that to at least one person, you matter!

And that I suppose, in the light of the recent Melbourne Bourke Street Tragedy (I’ve watched some videos on it), was what made the late Mr Sisto Malaspina (Rest In Peace) so special to so many people. I feel compelled to pay tribute to this quality of the late restauranter.

He was not just the co-owner of Pellegrini. He was that SOMEONE cheering in people’s corner, whatever corner that might be. He was special for being so.

From what I’ve gleamed, people who visited his restaurant felt that he really took time to know them, and to do little things to make them feel like he was thinking of them. And because of that, Mr Malaspina built a beautiful community around him and his restaurant.

That is a legacy that could not be taken away.

As Mr Thompson asserted, “If I connected to people, I would always be bound to them.” And it was a deep kind of bond that could open up a more meaningful life for us.

Deep-Bone Listening, Forming Community

Dadirri

Have you heard of this term? In some Australian Aboriginal cultures, this is the name of a deep, spiritual, form of listening:

“Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.”
– Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Ngangiwumirr Elder

In fact, for most of the elders in the community, this is a way of life. They listen on the move, deeply, with more than just their ears.

I call it Deep Bone Listening.

It’s not some esoteric practice. We’ve all more or less some kind of experience of Deep Bone Listening before.

For instance, have you ever listened to a piece of music and be so moved or captured by it, at a gut level?

Or when you’ve heard someone tell a story, and can put yourself into it, to the point that you could understand levels of meaning in that story?

Or when you’ve heard someone talk about what’s upsetting them, and instinctively know that what’s REALLY upsetting them is something else, hidden between the lines of what they’re saying?

Or for those who are partnered, when your partner says everything’s ok but you can SENSE that they’re not ok, because every line and curve in their tone and body is shouting this at you?

Or when you’re telling someone about something bothering you, and you KNOW that they get exactly what you mean, and where hurts?

Deep Bone Listening is allowing yourself to be moved by something else.

I Really Want To Share This - Friendship Bench

I really want to share this article, and wonder what feelings it evokes in you as you read it.

It sum:

It describes how a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe noticed that there were so many people struggling with depression and other emotional pain who had so little access to mental health professionals. There were way too little mental health professionals to support this massive demand. Many of these people struggled to live on and some sadly, succumbed to their emotional pain by taking their own lives.

Shaken and yet under-resourced, he desperately trained a handful of neighborhood grannies on basic counselling processes, and set up Friendship Benches in public places where people in need could come talk to these grannies. These grannies also used their cultural knowledge and wisdom accumulated through a lifetime of their own struggles to Listen, and to help.

It worked.

People started getting better. Anyone in pain could just visit a Bench and talk their hearts out, laying out the agonies they have had to carry privately.

Better still, the mental health of these grannies seem to improve despite the burden of Listening to and sharing so much emotional pain. They felt that what they did was so very meaningful.

Back To Basics - Connecting To A Simpler Life

I remember watching a Japanese reality show (called:自给自足) on being self-sufficient. It showcases people who have abandoned big city living and the 9 to 5 grind to live in self-sustained ways either by themselves or with their families in some further out suburb or farming community. They would plough their small plots of ground and have their own life stock and be sustained via solar and wind energy. They contributed to the village they lived in, and neighbours in turn leave extra harvest on their doorstep.

I always looked forward to watching the show and seeing how they managed or struggled to live in a self-sustained, self-sufficient manner. Some do eventually return to life in the big city of conveniences and technological glitz.

Despite their struggles, I could see this sense of contentment that many experienced. One episode that stood out the most for me was where children who had grown up in this self-sustained living situation and who had left for school in the big city craved so much to return to where they grew up. They have tasted a simpler life with a lot less artifice, and now longed once again for it. For them, the big city life and technology was all smoke and mirrors that became oppressive. They longed to return to connecting with this simplicity.

This series had me thinking a lot about how humans always crave for something better and to be happier. This desire in itself may be harmless, yet we dream of a life of simplicity through automaticity and ended up created structures and systems that are cumbersome and clunky.

“If we had technology to help us with this, then we’ll have more time to relax and enjoy.”

“Technology can help us connect better to others.”

“I’ll work really hard now, so that I can have the money to lead a happy contented life.”

However, we end up in an unending rat-race to feed this dream of simplicity and contentment because these systems we have build require a lot of upkeep and maintenance. So as humans, we start to invent more ways to make the system sustain itself.

About K-Pop, BTS and Listening

I’m probably going to get into some trouble writing about this next topic only because it’s extremely popular and with popularity, it can be so easy to tread on toes. But in light of the recent World Mental Health Day, I thought I’d like to share my thoughts.

So, ahem.

I’m going to be writing about….K-Pop (Korean Pop). To be more specific, K-Pop artistes. For those of you who don’t know, K-Pop is a MASSIVE industry in South Korea that is currently taking the world by storm for its music, flashy choreography and increasingly, the socially-conscious messages in their lyrics. It also generates billions of dollars of income for the country and is a bit of a cultural showcase.

This little background might give you a bit of a sense of what it means to be a K-Pop artist (they call them idols). While it does look glamorous, the journey to becoming an idol is gruesome, and the lifestyle of an idol rising to the top can be brutal. If you think that once they’ve reached the top and became successful that their lives would be better, then you might want to think again.

There are huge expectations and pressures to be role models, to look like you’re doing well, to look good, and to have all your shit together, all without any personal space to speak of. You’re under constant public scrutiny and have to walk within the tight lines of your very restrictive contract with your agency. Once you’re at the top, these kinds of pressures would also reach their peak.

I have often wondered about the mental health of these idols – often very young men and women (or perhaps I should call them boys and girls) – under the weight of their careers. They are only human but required to be super-human, almost like gods.

So I did a search and came across these articles (see link below). It seems that there are quite a few K-Pop idols who ARE struggling with mental health issues, or had done so in the past. I’m not surprised. In fact, a part of me went “ah-HAH!” or “Cha-ching!”

Another part of me deflated a little bit - with guilt and shock. I do enjoy watching and listening to K-Pop (and people's reactions to this genre), but in the process I've overlooked (perhaps willingly) that these idols are human beings who are struggling.

We Secretly Always Want To Feel "Good" And That Keeps Us Feeling "Bad"

“Your strategy for living in the present would go a lot better when you accept how frequently the present sucks.” Daron Larson

I seem to have fallen into some kind of trap – the trap of writing about Mindfulness. Quite frankly, I’m sick of the word because it’s so overused and over-hyped and over-everything these days. Everyone knows about it and talk about it, and only a handful actually practice it at all. Which makes it a common pattern among trends.

And yet, I came across this Ted Talk by Daron Larson that gives a rather refreshing spin on Mindfulness that is so different from that which is bandied around popularly. He talks about how trying to BE mindful is itself a trap – leading us away from the true spirit of the practice. This is because if there’s mindfulness, that entails the opposite state – mindlessness is there to be avoided.

Real mindfulness (without the capital “M”) is about opening and allowing things to be just as they are, without making any preferences to be different. An extremely difficult thing to carry out in real life (but of course, easy to philosophize about).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze6t34_p-84

Letting Go Of The Past

“You need to let go!”

“If I hear those bloody words again, I’ll explode!” Jeremy exclaimed, the vein in his neck sticking out dangerously. He didn’t need people to tell him that. He already knew that he truly wanted to let go of the past and like many people, he knew the words – “just let go”.

But he really didn’t know how to. Or at least, his mind and body seemed to grasp onto the very thing he was supposed to let go of - those incessant memories of what had happened to him.

“Here I am going happily on way, doing my stuff and then boom!” He gesticulated dramatically, “those thoughts – ‘I wish she were dead’ and those bloody images of that night just hits me square in the face! I swear it’s an ambush!”

Seeing his friend open his mouth to reply, Jeremy raised a hand to forestall him. He knew what Jake was going to say. That he must have been stewing over the incident – his friend’s reasonable tone and the stretched patience pulled across his face implying that he, Jeremy, were dwelling on the past deliberately. Which was bloody unfair.

Courage Is ... Taking A Deep Breath To Take That First Step

I’m so grateful for one of my clients for this beautiful and moving definition.

When I asked him about what he meant by courage – he was talking about working up the courage to break up with someone – he went away thoughtful. When he came into the next session, I could tell he wanted badly to tell me something.

That was when he shared this definition.

I love it so much because it’s not just a definition. It’s also a meaningful description that conveys the depth of how he experiences courage within him.

It’s almost like he had to fill himself up with energy to take action. Or he had to take in a deep breath to exert himself, working up the force to complete a difficult action. Like doing that last leg-press.

He needed to gather all of himself, marshal all of his resources into that one point. So he could take that first step. From there, everything will gather momentum, fanning the flames of his courage to propel him further.

It got me thinking – for me, what is courage? Was it the same?

For me, it felt more like holding my breath, perhaps. Or like having to take a deep breath so I can release it and let go of or break through all that is holding me back. Pull all the stops.

Yes, as I’m writing this, it feels right in a physical way.

Also, I do know that my lack of courage, when it had failed – where I’d taken that breath but only held onto it without pulling the stops, had resulted in me living in a kind of unfulfilled, tentative existence.

Maybe that is why sometimes I have experiences where people don’t take me seriously. Because without that fully released courageous energy, I come across as unconvincing, hesitant, unsure of myself and even “weak”.

Accompanying Death

I’ve came across this sweet and aching little video and it has gotten me thinking on a topic that I admit makes me uncomfortable – DEATH.

There’re plenty of self-help books, sayings and quotations about how embracing our impending death helps us to seize the moment and make the most of life. That is quite true from my experience. Some of my clients have literally had near-death experiences or as the Chinese like to say “took a bit of a spin outside the gates of the underworld and made a U-turn.” Almost all of them have reported a serious change in how they looked at things, and what they prioritize in life.

A large handful became more relaxed and open-hearted.

A lot of these clients have also learnt to take major risks in their lives because they know first hand how fragile their existence can be, and that they could easily miss the opportunity to do what they’ve always felt was important for them, in the next moment.

That’s wonderful, but there’s a small problem. We’re not all going to go out to achieve near-death experiences. That would be pretty dumb. How then can we achieve the kind of open-hearted courage that have come to those who have had near-death experiences?

Some self-help books and programs have detailed exercises getting us to vividly imagine ourselves on our death-beds filled with regrets. Some go so far as to encourage us to imagine ourselves JUST before the lights go out for us. I guess the purpose of these exercises is to help us EXPERIENCE something of a near-death situation.

—-

VIDEO LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofnCdC8P70g

Killing Hope - One Way To Truly Let Go

“I’m I afraid we’ll have to kill it.”

He nodded, looking defeated. “I suppose….?” Then, with a resolute snap. “No, there’s no other way.”

I felt sad, resigned. The kind of feeling you get when all options narrow down to the one choice. The one we’ve both been secretly hoping not to have to take.

“So,” he rubbed his hands on his pants legs a bit restlessly, brisk with tension. “When do we kill my Hope?”

“Now.”

---
And we proceeded to look at the relationship that he had worked so hard to salvage. The ex-partner who had ultimately left him without any clear reasons why. The failed, one-sided attempts at reaching out to this partner, like throwing notes folded into paper airplanes into an empty void. There were no more answers….

The “Why?” drove him into my office, and we started many sessions trying to get to the bottom of the need to answer it.

It ultimately came down to Hope.

“If I knew the answer to ‘why’, then I would KNOW what I did wrong,” a pause. My eyebrow rose expectantly, a hook for more. A crack in his voice. “And then maybe we can get back together.”

The Danger Of Quick Fixes

I happen to be born in an era where the latter half of my life was marked by a tidal wave of dizzyingly fast technological changes happening worldwide. I felt that I was a lot less anxious growing up until my teens only to become progressively more flustered subsequently.

The anxiety was a dreaded sense of not doing quite enough and never quite getting there yet, wherever “there” might be (See my post on The Busy One Inside). There was always something to catch up with and if I stopped, I felt that I would slide back down the river of progression and never catch up again.

Part of these rapid anxiety-provoking developments means too that the whole attitude towards how we approach problems have changed. We come to expect collectively quick fixes and magical elixirs to our problems. The urge for quick fixes have also invaded the sphere of emotional health.

Some of these quick-hurried-miracle cures seem to work (for the moment) so we start to apply them to all our emotional struggles with great hope. The sad thing is that most often and ultimately do NOT work.

It’s like expecting a band-aid to be able to fix a broken leg.

Empathy, Anger And The Person At Odds With Themselves

Recently, many things have happened that have gotten me feeling extremely angry. Violently so. To the extent that I feared that I would do something or someone damage.

Now, there’s some who would say that if someone did something that angered us, we should perhaps try to consider things from their point of view. To empathize with them.

I don’t know about you, but when someone’s done something wrong by me (whether intention or not) and I tried to empathize with them, I found it impossible to even start. It was as if there were two opposing emotional forces within me, cancelling each other out.

There was that part of me that said I should empathize with the person. But, in swift response, there was another part of me that would say that if I did empathize with the person, even if it were in my own consciousness, I would be giving ground. I would be selling myself short, and hence have little right to feel angry. It felt rather self-righteous, but also wary.

So I was stuck, and often settled for keeping quiet. On the surface. Inwardly, I was seething like bad, overcooked soup. It was so damn frustrating! I couldn’t even express anger, and to stand up for what I believe is right by me!

Then I read something by Ann Weiser Cornell called the Radical Acceptance of Everything. Weiser Cornell suggested that the best way to help with being stuck in this way is to allow, equally, space for all emotional parts of ourselves.

Empathy Starts From Within

I love the analogy by the Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh. Empathy is the basic effort to appreciate the internal world of another person or creature. With a little bit of effort and heart, most of us can muster up the capacity to empathize with some people. We might not get it right but we can roughly feel what they feel.

However, most of us neglect to empathize with one person.

Ourselves.

We often end up blaming, shaming, criticizing, hating on and banishing parts or all of ourselves. Is it any wonder that we end up feeling fractured or even empty? If we keep subtracting bits of ourselves, then at the end of the day, there’s not much left, is there?

Now consider this. Whenever you’ve empathized with someone – given the message that “you know (kind of) what it’s like for them” – what happens to that person? Did they soften a little bit more and become more relaxed? Did relief peek through the dark clouds on their faces? Did they feel less alone in their suffering?

Did they feel better, even if it were only for a little bit?

Cooking Together: The Wonders of Being Affected By Another Person's Experiences

(GETTING AN EXPRESSION OF INTEREST)

The moment I closed the door, Lester’s (pseudonym) façade of nonchalance fell off his face, revealing a palpable fluster. He sat with an arm draped against the sofa while his other hand nervously scrolled his phone where he had a prepared list of topics that he wanted to talk to me about.

It felt like he was trying to set structure and contain his difficult experiences by putting them down as words, and then pinning them down with bullet points. Yet, there was a palpable sense of straining panic that came from behind the muted and measured tones of his voice. There was as I came to know, more than one layer to the façade that he had come to carry with him in his day-to-day life.

As he detailed what was on his mind, I began to struggle with making sense of what was going on for him. I also began to feel flustered and lost. I know that I am by nature (or nurture or both) an anxious person and now the undercurrents of emotions between us was sizzling and passing onto me. There was a strong urge within to contain the turbulence of feelings. A strong desire to interrupt his teeth-achingly measured narrative as he droned from his phone. An urge to ask him to slow down so that I could understand, or even just to keep up. I confess that I felt more and more disoriented and discomforted by his narrative.

Or perhaps it was not his narrative that mattered, it was something else that was came directly from what he was feeling at the moment, hitting me in my emotional core. Perhaps he was showing (not just telling) me what was happening for him RIGHT NOW. Strangely this realization and the wondering that came unbidden to my mind helped me to calm down significantly and quickly.

What, I wondered, happened if I were to listen deeply to MORE THAN what Lester was saying? What if I allowed myself to immerse in the emotions that came forth in our interaction together, instead of trying to contain (and inevitably foreclose and shut down) Lester’s emotions? What if I focused (or Focused) on JUST the emotions and not what he was saying?

Why Doesn't It Last? The Garden of Our Psyche

Often after a client and I have come a certain way into our psychotherapy or our joint Focusing sessions, the question would float up from them. There it hangs, shimmering and ephemeral, implied but clear as day.

“Why doesn’t it last?”

Why doesn’t the sense of relief, release, insight, progress and flow after a session of Focusing last? Why do I fall back into anxiety or depression or anger or self-loathing?

I’ve often asked myself this question in the past too, for I too spent years working on myself and some little time in my own psychotherapy.

Were we doomed forever to do a one step forward but two steps back dance? Was maintenance all we can hope for and in which case, we should just settle for changing our expectations about our self-growth?

I was worried because the implications can be so devastating. It would mean that growth, improvement, becoming better or stronger (or whatever words you want to use to capture the spirit of the meaning) is an illusion.

Stopping and Starting: A Reflection on Taking Feelings at Face Value and Big Picture Thinking

I've dabbled with Focusing since 2010 but have learnt it formally in 2014. Since then, I've tried as much as possible to incorporate it into my life and more importantly, my work.

And yet, there are times when the whole process can be frustrating. I'd be able to get a physical sense of a feeling, but it just stays...stopped. Nothing else comes from it. No stories, nor images.

And then there are days when it just seems to snap into place and the physical sense pulls with it so many stories and images, freely forming and flowing. Things started, and moved, and I felt better.

What, I wondered, was the difference between when things Stopped and when things Started?

I prodded at this idea for a long time, and then one day it hit me. Rather, 2 things hit me.

1. Focusing for some is a process of both Starting and Stopping. There will be stops in the process and there will be starts. When it is stopped, and if I try to force it to start, it gets stuck. Similarly, when it starts and I try to force it to stop (usually with pre-conceived ideas about why I was feeling a certain way), then it get stuck as well.

Rather, if I went back to the bare basic principles underpinning Focusing - taking every internal physical experience as it is, at face value, with no urge to change it; then I have a way forward.

How does this play out in practice?

The Busy One Inside

“How have you been?” my client asked me as I closed the door and took my seat, iPAD in hand. 

“I’m a little sick,” I replied and shrugged my shoulders, preparing to focus on my clients and their experiences.

“Sam,” he said, “you’re always sick when I see you and I have been seeing you for 2 years!”

“I know right!” I quipped.

I have been sick on and off – at least once a month for the past 2 years. And this has had me wondering what was going on? Was I ageing before my time? Was it stress?

“You’re working yourself to the bone,” another client said poignantly, echoing my parents. She was of course right. Astutely so. I have, in the last few years worked progressively harder, extending my hours, seeing more clients, pushing my limits and complaining all this time that “I’m exhausted!”

“Perhaps you should see less clients (not me though)?” suggested another client. “Then you will have more time to rest and relax and vege out!”

“I know!” I said, and started to fantasize about the weekends of waking up late and doing nothing much in particular. Perhaps I would roll around on the floor and stare at the ceiling! Yet, when weekend does swing around, I would often find it really quite difficult to sit still and vege out. My weekends are filled with (no prizes for guessing) more work activities or chores. 

A Guide To Surviving Life For The Chronically Stressed And Anxious

Recently I’ve been asked this question really frequently by various people.

“I’m always stressed out or anxious about various things that are happening in my life! How do I become less anxious?”

Often, what people really mean by this question is: “Is there a quick fix to get rid of stress and anxiety because I really, really hate it! Plus, I want to keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them, even though I know somewhere in the corner of my mind that it’s what’s slowly killing me.”

I’ve usually hmmm’d and haaaaah’d over these questions because the answer is not simple. In fact, the answer to these kinds of questions is…bulky.

So I got to thinking about how to explain the answer (and solution) to people. It starts with an explanation, so brace yourself.

Ahem.

One feature of anxiety is about trying to predict and control the unpredictable and uncontrollable – an endeavor set to fail. We end up in a pattern of predicting and planning that provokes more anxiety, which in turn drives us to plan and predict some more.

It becomes an Orob-Orus Worm forever biting its own tail.

Another way of looking at anxiety is that it’s a futile and excruciating way of trying to control the Whole of Life. No prices for guessing how that’ll turn out.

A (Maybe) Better Way
Instead of trying to control every aspect of life, let me offer another approach based on what I’ve learnt from my clients and on my own. I’ve searched for a way to put it together and something from my home island of Singapore seems to do nicely.

For those of us “privileged” to be drafted into the Singaporean military services, we would be extremely familiar with the acronym: F.B.O.

It’s an acronym for Full Battle Order (not read as “FOB” please!) and is the soldier’s best friend. What it is, is a basic and personalized pack of tools and resources we carry with us, enabling us to be agile, mobile and survive in really, really tough conditions.

The Healing Power of Fantasy

I'm an avid fantasy reader and anime watcher. It's not secret that I love a good story. But there's more to fantasy than the power of the story.

It has the power to draw me in, allow me to BE in my imagination one of the characters, and express myself through that character. Kind of like the Sims game. It's also one reason why people love Cosplay.

In the words of one of my clients, it allows him to BE someone he is not. I asked him then whether he meant that it allowed him to BE more of himself that he could show in his everyday life?

He said yes, with a glitter in his eye.

So what has this got to do with anything?

Plenty. Fantasy or fantasizing is a very powerful way to allow us to express our emotions in a very safe way. And I don't mean safe like "I don't really have to strangle that bastard but still get the satisfaction" kind of way. I mean that it is safe because it can be secret/ private, and that you are in full control of the fantasy.

Now, there are 2 ways (at least) in using fantasy to express our true feelings (A.K.A. our "True Self").

The Change Triangle - A Useful Map To Deep Emotional Change

I recently gotten my hands on a wonderful book by Hilary Jacobs Hendel called:

It's Not Always Depression: Listen to the Body. Discover Core Emotions. Connect to Your Authentic Self.

Hilary is has had an interesting career - trained as a dentist, she re-trained to become a psychotherapist - simultaneously studying to be a classical psychoanalyst and an emotion-focused psychotherapist.

In this book, she presents the core of her method to help her patients truly change their stuck emotional patterns such as chronic depression, anxiety, anger and problems experiencing emotions (a.k.a. feeling nothing).

She calls it The Change Triangle. (Those in the know might know it by it's technical name: The Triangle Of Conflict). This is a useful map and tool distilling the insights from psychoanalysis, emotion theory and the clinical experience of many psychotherapists.

I've found it to be extremely powerful in helping some of my clients get to very deep levels of their emotions and to transform these emotions. As a result of this work (Hilary calls it Working the Triangle), some of my clients have (to my pleasant excitement), arrived at a deep clear state of calm, compassion, curiosity and clarity. To be honest, this is the deepest kind of effect my work has had on anyone.