On Mindfulness

Fortuitously, on 20 Dec 2009 when my little flash fiction story, Christmas Snow, was published in The Sunday Times here in Singapore, an article from The Washington Post was reprinted a few pages earlier. The title,  ‘Mind over platter: A practice called mindful eating promises effective weight management’, succinctly summarises the main point that being very conscious of how you eat and how much you eat can prevent overeating, binging and weight gain. For the purpose of this blog, what I would like to bring my readers’ attention to the last two paragraphs of the article:

“For someone who really wants mindful eating to be their life mission, they can study it and eat mindfully,” he says. [My parenthesis: ‘he’ being Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.]

“But most of us are too busy for that.”

But most of us are too busy for that… Hmm…

I presume that it has always been a fundamental human condition to be busy, busy, busy such that our ancient forbears developed the notion of mindfulness, which is the complete opposite of business, i.e. to pay full attention to one thing at a time and to chill and take it easy as a result. By comparison, our ancestors did not have to deal with the likes of computers, handphones and personal digital assistants (not to mention a million other electronic devices). These machines were originally developed to save us time that we could use  for other more noble pursuits. Instead, greater productivity and real time connectivity have in fact increased our pace of life and provided more avenues of pressure and distraction. So we are compelled to focus on our work and projects and to produce results and be successful. Ultimately, what is the cost of all this constant activity/drive?

Case-in-point: I was so inspired by the first Magdalena Project festival of women in contemporary theatre that I attended in Wellington in 1999 that I felt something similar should happen in Singapore. Finally in 2003, I committed myself to producing an international women’s theatre festival for 2006. Because of my studies in London for 2003/04, concrete organisation did not begin until at the end of 2004. So it meant practically about 18-20 months of hard, hard extremely focused work of frantic emails, calls and meetings to get Crossroads 2006 (the name of the Singapore festival) up and running with the dedicated help of many other women. At the same time as a means of getting a personal income, I had to also promote myself as a voice teacher and a storyteller.

Needless to say, I was exhausted by the end of 2006. Even now, I am still affected by the experience: a lot of my present choices are based on the fact that I do not want to repeat the same mistake of taking on a mega project and biting off more than I can chew. Through Crossroads 2006, I of course gained knowledge, confidence, wisdom and something to put on my resume. Yet the singleminded devotion to making it happen made me neglect other parts of my life, such as my health (I had never been so stressed in my life and I gained weight and much more white hair), my art (how to have time or focus to create theatre or write during that period) and my relationships with other people.

If there is one ironical observation to be made, it is as follows: Humans are not omnipresent, omiscient and omnipotent, although we often fancy that we are. In order to realise something, we need to focus on that one thing for that moment. In the process by necessity, we cannot pay attention to other things and must so neglect and be oblivious about them. In other words, opportunity cost rules.

[A side observation about singularity of focus: Hui Tin, my friend since Primary One, has an only son named Tian Oon. At six years old, Tian Oon is extremely bright and precocious and very good with words and numbers. And like all six year olds, he puts his heart and soul into everything, such as demanding his own way to have more access to the WII machine (as I witnessed during the Boxing Day dinner at Hui Tin’s place). When Hui Guan, his father, adamantly stood his ground and refused, Tian Oon protested vociferously, tears appearing at the corner of his eyes. In turn, father/mother/aunt/grandmother applied an often-used tactic to distract the boy: they gave him a mental sum to do (e.g. a 6-figure number multiplied by 2). And automatically, the tears stopped as his mental gears shifted into overdrive and the desire to play on the WII momentarily forgotten.]

So life for me since 2006 has been picking up the pieces of my life, being mindful of other aspects and finding some kind of balance. I’ve attended breathing and meditation classes. I took up yoga in 2005.  In 2007, I attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa to write. At the end of 2007, I joined a gym. I’ve invested in new clothes, joined new societies, bought new types of magazines (I’m now an O and Shape Singapore junkie), joined singles dating online sites, and tried other new experiences, etc…

An aspect of this recent phase of self-development that I would like to discuss is how I’ve grown to become more mindful about my own body through movement and food consumption. Since late 2005, I have been taking Iyengar yoga classes under Mrs Anjani Shah at the Ceylon Road Ganesha temple annexe. I have really benefitted from these sessions as Iyengar yoga is a very exacting form of yoga that makes you very conscious of how you move your body and place your weight in order to get the optimum result from each yoga pose (instead of rushing through a set of poses for the sake of finishing the set without knowing whether or not what you are doing is right or wrong, as has been my experience in a lot of other types of yoga classes that I’ve tried). Another great plus point about Iyengar yoga is that it accommodates the different abilities of each student and yet pushes him/her to achieve his/her maximum at any given point in time. [Thank you, Anjani, for your patient guidance over the years. I’m not quite a pretzel yet, but I can do a half-decent dog pose and headstand now. 🙂 ] Consequently, my back and neck aches have eased and are more manageable and I have become more flexible .

At the end of 2007, after some persuasion by my friends (i.e. thanks to Sheela, Kamini and Ferlin), I joined a gym to tone up my muscles even more and to lose weight. I even invested in personal training. My first fitness trainer helped me achieve a basic level of fitness, but I did not succeed in losing much weight. In Feb 2009, this trainer left the gym and I had the good fortune of being assigned Mattew Chan as a replacement trainer. I found it much easier to connect with Mattew, who not only knows his stuff, but is also very motivational and encouraging. Mattew now works at a new gym called the Functional Training Institute since the beginning of Dec 2009; and I have followed along. Under Mattew’s guidance since end Feb 2009, I’ve lost 12 kg and become much fitter and toner.

The philosophy of body conditioning that Mattew and his colleages at FTI advocate is Functional Training, which as far as I understand aims to train the body to function optimally and easily in normal life and/or specific sports with minimal injury rates. It is comprised of a spectrum of weight bearing exercises that use new-fangled gym equipment (e.g. balls, bands, straps, balancing stuff, to name a few), apart from some standard gym weight equipment. Personal training under Mattew is fun because of the variety of activities he puts me through. And the various exercises has made me more mindful of what muscles I am using and how I am using them [after of course getting over the initial aches and pains of ‘you-mean-I-have-such-a muscle-in-me?’ — Moment of enlightenment during one bathtime: I was soaping my legs and then felt this ‘lump’ in my thigh. I thought, “O my goodness, what growth is this?” And then I realised, the ‘lump’ was pure muscle, not the squidgy fat that I have grown accustomed to over the last few years.] In addition to Mattew’s training, I’ve logged in countless of hours of cardio exercise to help with the weight loss.

I am aware that some people are purists where it comes to physical exercise, i.e. you should stick to one form and not mix. What I have found is that the yoga and gym have complimented each other. From the yoga, I get flexibility and spinal stretching. From the gym training, I have gained greater muscular strength that has enabled me to do some of the yoga poses that I found difficult to do previously.

However the greatest joy thus far is having the strength and stamina to go back to free dancing. During my late teens and early 20s, part of how I lost weight then was to do my own free movement dancing to the hits of the 80s and early 90s. Over time, knee/back injuries curtailed my movements, I stopped dancing and jogging and the kilos piled on. But after all the tough physical conditioning of the last 9 months, as part of my own self-training now at FTI, I have been moving like a lunatic in one corner of the parquet area almost every Sunday since mid-Dec and having a blast with my first-ever MP3 player plugged to my ears, a wild aerobic contrast compared to the guided movements of other gym occupants. While I would never called myself a trained dancer, I have sorely missed this ability and opportunity to be able to express myself physically and freely according to the demands/moods of the music being played.

Part of the weight loss regimen has been logging down not only the amount and type of cardio exercise that I have done, but also noting down what type and quantity of food that I have consumed (and comparing this to the ideal meal plans that Mattew provided in Jun 2009). Arggghhhh… the need to be so meticulous in this area. What a pain! The three main difficulties in maintaining this food log are: a) how can I lead a ‘normal life’ vs. adapt my entire lifestyle according to the optimal meal plans; b) how to remember every single detail of what I eat or drink; c) how to describe certain non-typical dishes that I sometimes eat at my sister’s (I dine there usually three times a week) or when I eat out. Alas, I guess this is one area that I will always have to be mindful of for the rest of my life if I am going to succeed in continuing to lose more weight (till I achieve my ideal goal) and to maintain that ideal weight.

Which brings me back full circle to my starting point of Brian Wansink and the art of mindful eating. Yes, there is a lot of self-help literature out there, apart from Brian Wansink, that stress the need to be very conscious of both what and how you eat for weight loss/maintenance and/or other health reasons. The benefits are plentiful and obvious: you consume only what you really need and do not overeat or mindlessly shovel food into your mouth at a constant pace; you savour and enjoy each mouthful; you take time to chew and digest your food; you savour and enjoy the company of your dining companions; you take time to relax and chill out and not rush and/or eat-on-the-go, etc. But do we have the will power to go slow, not multi-task, and take one thing at a time?

Where eating is concerned, I have many bad habits to break, such as eating breakfast while reading the newspaper or watching television; snacking while watching night TV; preferring to eat and listen rather than converse when dining with others (it doesn’t help that I’m not much of a talker, and prefer listening to speaking). And where exercise is concerned, I am mindful that this is what my body wants to do right now in my life, i.e. go to gym, do yoga and free dance. But at the same time, all these workouts take up a lot of time (at least 2 or 3 hours a day, once you factor travelling time to and from the gym/yoga class). Yet, many other things (work, family, art, friends, reading, research and leisure) also demand my attention. By concentrating so much time over the last 9 months in losing weight, I have sidelined other activities and constantly face the pressure of an increasing mountain of things not yet done.

But most of us are too busy for that… Hmmm… Zen masters and modern proponents such as Eckhart Tolle advise that if you are surrounded by a million problems, things are really ok and can be dealt with if you just focus and live from moment to moment and not worry about everything past, present or future.

Alas, try as I might to follow such sage wisdom, I am no saint. Admittedly, I may be misinterpreting the various masters, but my monkey mind wanders and wonders: In being mindful of one thing, how can we also be mindful of other things in our life at the same time and achieve balance? How can we prioritise carefully what we choose to be mindful of, and not feel guilty that we have been mindful of the wrong thing? How can we resist the pressure that we need to do a million other things, and just be happy and content and accept that what we are mindful of at this very point in time is just ok, and that this is life as it should be?

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2 thoughts on “On Mindfulness

  1. Hey Verena,
    Plenty of value in that post, thank you. And congratulations on what has clearly been a year of great personal development for you.
    I have only two things to suggest in response to what you’ve said.
    1. Don’t think too much. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To that I might suggest, “The over-examined life is not even living.”
    2. Don’t take things – or yourself – too seriously. Whatever great exertions of mindfulness we might make, there is no running away from the inherent absurdity and perplexity of life. Might as well have a good laugh at it.

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