Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy, aka meditation

"Meditation is gradually becoming a part of normal life."

When I quoted the above from an email by a friend in India on 3 December 2010, it was with admiration (and maybe a bit of envy) that I looked at the fairy-tale life of this friend, which was also marked by yoga activities and trekking in the snow in the Himalayas. I didn't have a clue what meditation really is.

Not that I have learned much more now. But since then, one reading after another, some force has been drawing me towards this time-honored practice and here I am, at the door-step and ready to knock. I am fascinated by the idea of learning mindfulness and awareness by focusing on one's breath, and the very rudimentary practices I have taken have been promising. It is a long, long way away from my being able to claim any progress, but I have developed the resolved to persist.

The book I have been reading, called Mindfulness in Plain English, suggests that one is able to handle distraction, fear, greed, anger and pain better by developing mindfulness and awareness. An online article, called Changing Your Brain by Changing Your Mind, quotes research evidence over the past 10 years or so which shows how meditation may change the brain and improve mental and physical well-being. Research studies showed that meditation practice:

  • changed the pattern of electrical activity in the brain
  • was associated with increased grey matter in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, and decreased grey matter in the amygdala, which is the initiator of the brain's pre-cortical alarm system
  • reduced pain sensitivity by reducing unusual activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex
  • prompted a shift away from negative and towards more positive emotional experience through greater activation in the left cortical hemisphere

Such research evidence appears to provide support to what the book says. The benefits of such disciplined practice of mind changing is what prompted some researchers at Harvard Medical School to develop a related program to help people living with chronic pain.

The program is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR). Aka meditation.


"It's always the simple things really"

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Bill Shankly, the most iconic manager of Liverpool Football Club. It was he who famously said that football is much more important than life and death. 

Today, an interview of Mr Shankly's granddaughter, Karen Gill, chairperson of the club's Supporters' Committee, was published on the club's official website. When Ms Gill was asked about her fondest memories of her grandfather, she did not refer to any glorious moments of winning trophies but rather said:

"It's always the simple things really. I used to love going with him when he took the dog for a walk to the Everton training ground. I remember running around there playing with him. Most of my memories involve other people. He used to take us to a place called Capaldi's which was an ice cream parlour. You knew that you'd have five minutes of his time and then he'd be surrounded. If it was a special occasion he would take us to the Lord Nelson in town. That was a really nice hotel and we used to have a lovely meal there. Even then, he'd be surrounded by people. Everyone loved talking to him. I suppose the nicest memories are when we were at home with him. We would often stay the night and he would come and tell us stories about Glenbuck before bedtime. It was probably the only time that you would have him to yourself and they are the moments that I cherish most."

It is very human that Ms Gill saw the "simple things" as representing her fondest memories, things like going with her grandfather when he took the dog for a walk or going out for an ice cream or a meal. Obviously, Mr Shankly was then so popular and busy that he was always surrounded by people or engaged with work, so what his granddaughter cherished most were moments when she would have her grandfather to herself.


Turning your passion into a profession

In the film Three Idiots, Rancho advised his friend Raju, whose dream is to become a wildlife photographer, to turn his passion into a profession.

One of the most famous proponents of this idea is Steve Jobs. He said: “You've got to find what you love. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”

This is, to many, easier said than done. Sam Davidson, in his internet article called Making Your Passion Your Profession, suggests a four-step process:
  • That dream develops a passion.
  • The passion develops a plan.
  • The plan determines the action.
  • The action helps us to dream better.

Obviously, what is crucial is to first have a dream. It gives meaning and impetus to whatever passion, plan and action there are. As Robert K. Greenleaf, whose essay Servant as Leader inspire people all over the world, says: “Not much happens without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams. Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality; but the dream must be there first.”



While having lunch with a friend, our conversation drifted to the grand opening of Hong Kong’s first ever Apple Store a few days ago. I told my friend that among the die-hard fans who have been queuing and sleeping outside the Store for a couple of days is one who has been supporting the brand for 35 years, using its computers since 1976. My friend boasted that he has been using Apple products in the sixties, since he was born. I was unamused.

“What products?” I challenged.

“i-Nap,” he responded wittily. “i-Nap 1.”


Having the same mindset as Christ Jesus

Shortly after the 8am service began yesterday morning, an old woman with a walking stick inched her way into the church. She stopped near where I was sitting, looking for a seat. The church was not full at that moment, although those seats near the aisle had been taken, one of them by me. There was a vacancy next to me, but I made no move to alert the woman, feeling that there were seats she could choose and it didn’t have to be that one. A middle-aged woman on the other side of the aisle signaled the expectant senior to take the seat next to her and, after the old woman thankfully obliged, helped her place her walking stick.

The woman’s kind attitude and gesture filled me with shame. There were, as I said, seats available and it would seem that I didn’t have to do anything. But then a little voice deep down told me that the right thing to do would have been for me to move in and vacate my seat near the aisle. I simply wasn’t caring enough.
At that moment, I heard the reading of Philippians 2:5-11:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”


How not to procrastinate

An article on procrastination? Oh, well. I’ll read it later.

Seriously, in order not to procrastinate, I didn’t put off reading this article from the Psychology Today website, called Are You Procrastinating or Just Not Interested?.

Dr. Ben Knaus, writer of the article, is the author of more than 20 books, some of which are on the topic of procrastination. He looked at procrastination from the vantage points of (1) uninterested, (2) compliance, (3) conservation of energy and (4) expectations, and proposed the following four anti-procrastination rules:

Rule 1: You don't need to be interested in a priority to do it.
Rule 2: Get critical social responsibilities quickly done to have more time for what is productive or fun.
Rule 3: In the end, you conserve more energy by expending effort to complete a priority than by swerving from it.
Rule 4: By understanding your enlightened expectations, you position yourself to avoid procrastination trap thinking, such as believing that you have to feel motivated to engage priorities that disinterest you.

These rules are useful for helping us understand procrastination and then break the habit.

The writer also has an Internet workshop and a free eBook on accompanying it, both on procrastination? Oh, well. I'll check them out later...


I am NOT a book hoarder

Some research I did after writing yesterday's piece suggests that I am NOT a book hoarder. According to the conditions below, outlined by Jessie Sholl in her online article, No, You Are Not A Book Hoarder, I do not fit the bill:

"Just because you have a lot of books, that doesn't mean you're a bibliomaniac. Can you walk through the room in which your books are stored? Have you depleted any of your life savings on these books? Do you hide when the doorbell rings or not allow a plumber into your home when your sink is clogged? a lot of books, that doesn't mean you're a bibliomaniac… you might have packed bookcases and, yes, too many books, but that doesn't mean you're a book hoarder."

Sholl goes on to say that carelessly tossing the label of hoarder around is disrespectful to hoarders and those affected by the disorder.

To me, it is reassuring to know that I am not a hoarder by a mile, if the two cases of bibliomanes quoted by Sholl in her article are anything to go by. In one case, a Spanish monk committed at least eight murders in his quest for rare and valuable texts. In the other, a mother locked away her son in a sanitarium for fear that her son would burn away the family fortune on his obsession of bird books of which he already had 65,000. But I certainly did not mean to be flippant or disrespectful to people with such a disorder when I called myself a book hoarder. I just realised that I have the inclination of over-purchasing and felt the need to put that in check.


Confessions of a book hoarder

I pride myself in being an avid reader. Over the years, I have read so many books which have given me immense pleasure, knowledge and benefits. However, even here is where hoarding surfaced. I used to love buying books. It didn’t matter whether I had time to read them or how many books were still left untouched in my bookcases (there are still some unread ones to this day!). When I saw a title I liked, I was resolved to own the book. It was only after I had to chuck away lots of books when I moved home, and after I realized that there were simply too many books I had that were never read that I saw that enough was enough. Since then, I almost only borrowed from the library.

Until I was given something called Kindle.

e-books could be an even bigger problem for hoarders than printed ones because they do not require physical storage space. I still have more books than I can read in my Kindle, but fortunately, I have developed better restraint now and do not go over the top. And after reading the article on hoarding that I mentioned a couple of days ago, I swear to myself that I have to finish reading the few I have before ordering another one online.


Collecting lovers like butterflies

It is not only physical objects that humans collect or hoard. We also like to acquire and hold on to fame, fortune, success, pleasure and good feelings and relationships.

Revealingly, the definition of compulsive hoarding spelt out in yesterday’s blog applies equally well here. Our relentless pursuit of the above “possessions” not only clutters our spaces so as to preclude activities for which these spaces are designed, but also causes distress or impairment in functioning.

These lines from Rod Stewart’s I Was Only Joking express it well:

“Never found a compromise
Collected lovers like butterflies
Illusions of that grand first prize
Are slowly wearing thin”


I hoard, therefore I exist (1)

"A surprising number of people, when I tell them about my book, confide nervously that they think they might be a hoarder, too."

This is how Jessie Sholl began her article Trash or Treasure: What Makes People Hoard?. The book she mentioned is called Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding.

Most of us frown upon or despise hoarders. No doubt we also shudder at the prospect of being one ourselves. In the article, Jessie Sholl reassured us that it is much more likely that we are not hoarders, just collectors. It is because most of us may not fit this generally accepted definition of compulsive hoarding: 

(1) the acquisition of, and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value;
(2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed; and
(3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

Are we quite safe then? That’s not how I look at myself. Sholl’s article is a stark reminder of the extent to which I display at least some characteristics of a hoarder. It is something that I was previously unaware of.
For one thing, I am certain guilty of “acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions”. I pride myself in not paying over the odds for things I like, and most purchases I make are when the items are on sale or when I can buy them second hand. The problem, however, is that the cheap prices seem to give me the license to buy many – simply too many. Take tennis T-shirts and shorts for an example. None of the ones in my wardrobe costs more than USD10, although they are all brandname products which I bought from export shops or in a big sale. The undesirable outcome, however, is that I now have a supply of T-shirts and shorts that will last a lifetime. The cases of my tennis racquets and shoes are similar. So even though it hasn’t got to a stage where my living spaces are cluttered or functioning is impaired, a situation in which I have purchased much more than I need is not a healthy one at all.

I may still be just a “collector”, but according to Sholl, it is possible that a collector may turn into a hoarder. "Hoarding is often set off by a trauma, though symptoms of it appear earlier, sometimes going as far back as childhood,” she wrote. She talked about how her own mother, who was always unorganized, lackadaisical about cleaning, and certainly an over-purchaser when she was growing up, became a true hoarder when her boyfriend died.

Whether or not there will be a tragic trigger that will turn me into a hoarder, I should try to cut out the habit of over-purchasing.


Why are they spoon-feeding us this rubbish?

Why is it that the local media can spoon-feed the audience and readers with whatever rubbish they please, be it the worthless front page news items mentioned yesterday, the soppy primetime soap operas or the spiteful paparazzi stories? This, I think, has to do with the following foibles of the local readership, which, unfortunately, represents the majority of the population:
  • Voyeuristic – Nosing into other people’s affairs or private lives. Why else is there always a crowd of onlookers when there is the slightest commotion on the street?
  • Judgemental – Standing on moral high ground and passing moral judgement on other people’s affairs or private lives, completely oblivious of the fact they themselves have as many of the faults as that they can find in others. 
  • Unthinking – Not exercising critical thinking and so easily fall prey to whatever ploys that the media use to mislead, sensationalise or intoxicate. 
I have heard some sane people say they have stopped reading the newspaper or even watching television. I can understand why and feel that this is the direction towards which I should move.


Our front page news

These screen captures from the website of one of Hong Kong's best-selling newspapers are illustrative of the editorial direction and quality of the newspaper. First of all, what sort of news makes it to the front page? The screen capture at the top shows that the front page news today is about a dispute between a karaoke lounge and some customers over the bill. The one at the bottom shows the front page news one day about a month ago of the divorce of two pop stars. Take a quick scan at the other news stories and you notice that they are about mistresses, voyeurism and the like.

These are the things that are considered by the newspaper to be most newsworthy, or to deserve a place on the front page. But essentially such complete rubbish is able to occupy that position because it is what the readers love to read and what boost the sales of the newspaper.

I would like to reiterate a point I have made earlier - that this sort of media is precisely what we deserve.


The chocolate meditation

I’ve been reading Mindfulness in Plain English and learning that one can achieve mindfulness by practicing vipassana meditation. The trick is to learn to focus one’s mind on the present moment by paying attention to one’s breath.

There is, according to an article at the Psychology Today website, published on Mindfulness Day, a more palatable option. How about learning to focus on the present by eating a chocolate?

As the name of the article, The Chocolate Meditation – Perfect for Mindfulness Day, suggests, one can do a chocolate meditation. Here is how to do it:

“Choose some chocolate - either a type that you've never tried before or one that you have not eaten recently. It might be dark and flavoursome, organic or fair-trade or, perhaps, cheap and trashy. The important thing is to choose a type you wouldn't normally eat or that you consume only rarely. Here goes:
• Open the packet. Inhale the aroma. Let it sweep over you.
• Break off a piece and look at it. Really let your eyes drink in what it looks like, examining every nook and cranny.
• Pop it in your mouth. See if it's possible to hold it on your tongue and let it melt, noticing any tendency to suck at it. Chocolate has over 300 different flavours. See if you can sense some of them.
• If you notice your mind wandering while you do this, simply notice where it went, then gently escort it back to the present moment.
• After the chocolate has completely melted, swallow it very slowly and deliberately. Let it trickle down your throat.
• Repeat this with one other piece.”

A quite delicious option, eh?


Mindfulness Day

The first ever Mindfulness Day, which this logo promotes, which took place on 12 September, went by largely without stirring a ripple. But then this is hardly surprising at all. In this bizarre world, good things do not get the attention or credit they deserve. Only things that are harmful for us scream for, and usually do successfully get, our attention.

This logo is one of the best I have come across lately. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing but also it captures the essence of mindfulness nicely. If, as defined by the official website of Mindfulness Day, mindfulness is "the practice of developing presence in all aspects of our lives", surely this is what the tiny dot in the logo is trying to do.


Cha chaan teng - another uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon (2)

The price – This is a big draw card for many. While the items in the à la carte menu are reasonably priced, the set menu is even more of a bargain. A set lunch – complete with soup, a main dish, and tea or coffee - only costs about USD5.

The service – Except efficiency, there is nothing else to boast about. The waiter slams a glass of “clear tea” (which is what gives cha chaan teng its name) on the table as soon as the customer is seated and then just stands there with a notepad in hand to put pressure on the customer to place the order. No sooner has the waiter made off with the order than the food is slammed on the table, as hard as the glass of tea a while ago. Not that the Hong Kong customers would mind, though. They are well aware that they are here only for the food they regard as fast, cheap and tasty, not the service.

The ambiance – Well, it is a place with the most rudimentary facilities for a meal. At lunchtime, which is when most of the business is conducted, a cha chaan teng at a business district is like a battlefield, with waiters making war cries and hurling missiles in the forms of food and drinks. Not wanting to have their appetite affected, customers knowingly avoid looking at the floor strewn with left-overs which the waiters swipe from the table with a piece of greasy cloth, or glancing at the kitchen which is equally unsightly. Again, the very pragmatic, understanding and fair customers do not seem to mind, and as long as this is the case, there is never any pressure for the cha chaan teng to make improvement.

So this is what makes cha chaan teng a uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon. To be fair, the restaurant is exactly what Hong Kong people deserve.


Cha Chaan Teng - another uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon (1)

As much of a Hong Kong phenomenon as smelly taxis is a unique kind of restaurant called Cha Chaan Teng. According to Wikipedia, the name, which literally means “tea restaurant” (cha is tea, chaan teng is restaurant), orginates from the fact that a glass of weak tea is provided to the customer as soon as he is seated.

It is no exaggeration to say that cha chaan tengs are a unique Hong Kong phenomenon. In fact, a Hong Kong poll found that seven out of ten people believe cha chaan tengs deserve a UNESCO cultural listing. I totally agree that they deserve such a status because the restaurants and Hong Kong people are a match made in heaven. Here are the reasons:

The food – As suggested in Wikipedia, the cha chaan teng serves a wide range of food, from steak to wonton noodles to curry to sandwiches. As such, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to pin cha chaan teng food down to a particular type of cuisine. Theoretically, the restaurant offers mainly Chinese and Western food (plus a bit of Japanese and South East Asian food in many cases), but the term “Western” can be quite misleading as what is supposed to be Western food, such as tea with milk, steak and “French” toast, has been completely localised. In any case, it never ceases to amaze me that there are easily over a hundred items in the menu of any cha chaan teng. You name it, they have it. I can never understand how they can manage to stock so many kinds of ingredients and keep them from turning stale. That is a wonderful example of Hong Kong versatility and flexibility.

Apart from the wide choices, another feature of cha chaan teng food is its thick taste, which is the outcome of the chef's very liberal application of condiments, sodium and MSG. But this ruthless bombardment of the palate is precisely what the Hong Kong glutton hails as delicious. Dishes prepared otherwise would be condemned as bland. A good example is the so-called "pantyhose milk tea", so named because the brown sackcloth bag used to filter the black tea leaves resembles a silk stocking. 
Despite being compared unfavorably with "proper" English tea by some Westerners, the pantyhose milk tea is held in high regard by Hongkongers, who simply love its "smoothness" - the tea made full-bodied and creamy due to its thickness and the abundance of milk. 

(To be continued)


Stale cigarette stench in taxis

Apart from not willing to splash out on transport when there is an efficient and reasonably-priced mass transport service in Hong Kong, one thing I hate about taking taxis is that there is always a stale cigarette stench (or, sometimes, just an offensive, moldy stench) in the compartment, no matter how new the vehicle looked or how well polished it is on the outside. It does not matter that smoking on public transport is prohibited and a "No Smoking" sign is conspicuously displayed. The stench is irrefutable evidence that the drivers smoke in the taxi when there are no passengers.

I also rarely take taxis in other countries, with the exception of Bangkok, Thailand, where taxi fares are no more expensive than the Sky Rail. While Thailand is supposed to be less civilized than Hong Kong, there is no such stench in the taxis. Obviously, their taxi drivers do not steal a drag in their taxis like their Hong Kong counterparts do.

The phenomenon of smelly Hong Kong taxis (and, of course, minibuses) is a clear reflection of one important aspect of the Chinese culture - that things behind the scene can be quite different from what is displayed in the facade. Dodgy behaviours do not matter as long as they are not caught out. In any case, the mentality of doing business in this supremely pragmatic part of the world is that you get the particular type of service you pay for. No more. No less. In the case of taxis (and minibuses), the service procured is taking the passengers to the destination in the shortest time possible. All else is quite irrelevant. This is the unwritten agreement between the service provider and the customer. The latter does not mind that the taxi stinks as badly as the attitude of the driver, who is happily blaring into one of his seven mobile phones in front of the dashboard. When there are no expectations from the passenger, why should the driver bother?


A country in spiritual crisis

I have always felt that a crucial solution to China's various problems today is the Christian faith. In this country where corruption and scams are the order of the day, where money not only speaks but shouts, where the government, businesses and many people, for some ulterior motives, shamelessly lie on a daily basis, people are lost and suffer from a spiritual void. As the writer of Spirituality in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?, a recent article in the BBC Magazine said: "I heard people talking again and again of a "spiritual crisis" in China - a phrase that has even been used by the Premier Wen Jiao Bao. The old have seen the old certainties of Marxism-Leninism transmute into the most visceral capitalist society on earth. For the young, in the stampede to get rich, trust in institutions, between individuals, between the generations, is breaking down."

It is therefore heartening to learn that the number of Christians in China is multiplying. A conservative estimate of the number of Christians, according to the article mentioned above, is 60 million.

Christianity exists in different forms in China. Catholicism and Protestantism, designated by the state as two separate religions, are both divided into official and unofficial churches. Take Catholicism for an example. There is the officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association which appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican. There is also a larger Catholic underground church which is supported by the Vatican. Recently, a number of "house churches", which refuse to acknowledge any official authority over their organization and which are at odds with the official Church, have been mushrooming across the country.

Why are more and more people turning to Christianity? Professor He Guanghu, one of China's most eminent philosophers of religion said: "I think it is very natural that many other people will not be satisfied... will seek some meaning for their lives so that when Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly."

God save China.


"What a docile child!"

I am sorry to say that my own culture is one of those that Tina Seelig mentioned in the above quote taken from her book What I Wish I Knew When I was 20. I can testify, with my childhood experience, to the observation that people from a young age are taught to follow a prescribed path and not to try anything that might lead to disappointment. I remember well how, both at home and at school, my attempts to express myself were brutally suppressed. I also remember how, every time I displayed behaviours that aligned with the expectations of adults, I would be rewarded with the remark: “What a docile child!” As I was to realize as I grew up, “docile”, a word which literally means easy to manage or handle, is a curse rather than a blessing. What it praises is nothing more than obedience. What good does it do to encouraging a child to be independent, creative and adventurous?

In our culture, the “prescribed path with a well-defined chance of success” Tina Seelig talked about is this total obedience and submission to authority. It is not difficult to see its application in the workplace and in politics. China has never managed to exorcise the feudal ghost.


Getting recharged

According to the book Mindfulness in Plain English, meditation creates an environment conducive to the release of tension built up in the press of events during the day. By setting up a formal meditation period,

“We withdraw from those events that constantly stimulate the mind. We back out of all that activity that prods the emotions. We go off to a quiet place and we sit still, and it all comes bubbling out. Then it goes away. The net effect is like recharging a battery. Meditation recharges your mindfulness.”

That is why I feel the need to go to the countryside by myself from time to time. I would find a quiet place, sit there and let the mind cleanse itself of the various troubling thoughts and connect with Nature. Recharging is exactly the feeling I have every time I do that. 


A "timeless" watch?

I had a little shift of perspectives yesterday when looking at my watch. All my life, looking at the watch or the clock is for checking the time, but this time I focused on the clockwork and the following ideas came up: “Does a watch really tell time? Essentially, it is just a device with clockwork that makes it move and tick with amazing regularity. The numbers that a watch shows with its hands represent the time it tells. But what is time really? Try to imagine the watch without the hands. It still ticks, but now all the association with time is gone and the concepts of past, present and future are much weakened, if not completely removed. Looking at the watch no longer generates in us the feeling of urgency and lack of control because of “time” slipping away with every passing moment. It becomes more possible for us anchor our awareness in the present moment.