Keep calm and carry on

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 13, 2014

The mad rush of the day begins once the alarm clock rings.

You yell at the kids to hurry up, gobble down a hasty breakfast while scanning the newspapers and drive the children to school before going to work.

You attend countless meetings and reply a never-ending stream of e-mail or text messages while trying to meet deadlines. To de-stress, you hit the bar and unintentionally drink too much, such that you have to nurse a hangover the next morning.

The routine repeats itself and you go into autopilot mode. You forget things, even what you ate for lunch.

"There is a lot of (work) stress in people's lives now, caused substantially by overload in terms of information, projects and tasks. And it seems that many people are dissatisfied with their current strategies of handling stress, such as multitasking," said Singapore Management University's Associate Professor Jochen Reb, who is studying the role of mindfulness in the workplace and in leadership here.

Such an overload is why mindfulness is gaining traction in the West and, more gradually, here as well. You cannot control everything that happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it.

"When we are in the moment, we calm down. We are in a different world and we can perform better," said Ms Jane Grafton, a mindfulness coach and trainer with Potential Project Singapore.

It is not just a personal issue any more, but a personnel one as well. Companies here, such as Google and American Express, have offered their employees mindfulness training.

Last August, Mindfulness was included in a core module in the Master of Business Administration curriculum at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

More executives are shelling out money to attend mindfulness workshops to learn how to improve their lives. It is not surprising, considering that similar courses have been held at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

Mindfulness is not just for working adults. Such workshops are also being held for new mothers and the elderly here, while a group wants to introduce it in schools.


Mindfulness teaches us to focus on the present and to look at ourselves with some detachment.

It is a secular practice that has roots in ancient Buddhist meditation. In the 1970s, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Hospital, introduced mindfulness as a clinical intervention.

He developed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course that is now being offered by many practitioners worldwide.

Some people may be wary of its religious roots, but mindfulness used in Western therapy has been tailored to be independent of religious beliefs, said Mr Wong Chin Meng, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where mindfulness is used to treat mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression as well as addictions.

"One perspective is to view mindfulness as a way to train our attention, to increase our awareness of the present moment and to anchor ourselves when we are in an emotional storm."

In mindfulness meditation, which is a big part of mindfulness, you focus your attention on something - such as your breathing or a movement - to raise your awareness of the present moment.


Mindfulness is a useful skill to help us quieten the mind, slow down and take charge of our lives, say practitioners.

Studies have shown that the practice can help people to manage stress better and to become more self-aware. It also improves concentration and reduces anxiety, said Professor Kua Ee Heok, a senior consultant at the department of psychological medicine at National University Hospital (NUH), where mindfulness is used in psychological therapy for patients with anxiety or depression.

"No matter how sick or healthy we are, we all get stressed at times about inevitable things, big and small, that happen in life," said Ms Sheryl Bathman, director, counsellor and psychotherapist at Lifesteps, which started the MBSR course here in 2010.

"We may fall into chronic stress cycles, which can lead to serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and depression, in the long run."

Dr Ong Seh Hong, a senior consultant at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's department of psychological medicine, said there are studies which show that mindfulness can make people happier.

"It brings about awareness and caring into our daily life and everything we do," he said, adding that the practice has also been found to be beneficial in parenting and education.

Indeed, the fascinating thing about mindfulness is how multi-purpose it is, said Prof Reb.

The technique can be very powerful, for example, through a process called "reperceiving".

This refers to viewing your thoughts and emotions as a witness, and not overly identifying with them.

"This can lead to new insights about the kind of triggers and thoughts that make you happy or sad, or lead to wise or bad decisions," he said.

IMH's Mr Wong said mindfulness exercises are a useful way to train one's attention, which can be viewed as a "mental muscle".

"The more you train your muscles, the more likely they will retain their strength and flexibility."

However, mindfulness is "not a panacea for all people with mental health problems", such as those with psychosis, warned NUH's Prof Kua.


Clients have told Mr Toby Ouvry, a former British monk-turned-mindfulness and meditation trainer here in Singapore: "I know I am lucky. I have money and a family but I feel guilty because I do not feel happy."

Such a gap occurs because people do not allow themselves "quality time for feeling good", he said.

"They are always thinking of the next thing to do. If you are trapped by that, life isn't much fun."

One of his clients, executive coach and facilitator Kathleen Urquhart, said she is now better equipped to be mindful in "small, everyday ways" - for example, keeping calm during a difficult conversation.

For Mr Mike Langton, the chief executive of Forrest Personnel in Australia, mindfulness has become a way of life. He had attended a mindfulness course while he was in Singapore, where he lived for 20 years, alongside "big business executives, retired big business executives, a therapist, a yoga teacher or two and a professor from overseas".

"As a group, we were all curious, had all done some research and were all looking for better ways to handle the stressors we encounter in our lives."

What he liked about the course was that it was free of "mumbo-jumbo airy-fairy stuff".

He now uses the technique actively and almost automatically. "While I can't say that my life is stress-free, I definitely experience less stress and I handle it far better then I ever did before the course."

It has even helped him to co-parent his two teenage sons better with his former wife, he added.


Elsewhere, a small group of mums gathers every fortnight to share their motherhood experiences and pick up mindfulness tips.

Ms Silvia Wetherell, co-founder of Mindful Mums, started the free support group in September last year, and plans to run four Mindful Mums workshops this year, up from two last year. "It is a way of relating to motherhood's ups and downs in a compassionate, curious and non-judgmental way."

Mindfulness was chosen as control-based strategies are not ideal in the perinatal stage when a mother has little choice over her environment, she added.

A group of elderly folk is also getting a taste of the practice for free, thanks to National University Health System's Mind-Body Interest Group initiative, which aims to promote self-care among the elderly.

They are able to attend a new Mindful-Awareness Practice developed by Mr Wee Sin Tho, a mindfulness enthusiast and a senior adviser at NUS, who devised the course based on knowledge gleaned from his meditation teachers over the past decade.

Two other mindfulness enthusiasts - Ms Nelly Darmali and Mr Raymond Soon - want to help children to learn better and be happier. They have started a non-profit organisation to promote mindful education in the community.

Both started volunteering with a pilot class of children at risk at a school here, which they do not want to name, in 2012. They plan to involve more students in the training by the end of the year.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 13, 2014

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