Oct 282011
Nanjing Road in the Rain by 23 Hours

As I prepared to head out of the door for lunch, my spider-sense tingled. Actually, it was my hand phone vibrating in my pocket. It turned out that my best friend needed a listening ear. And so, I called my best friend to do what I do best, listen. As I extended my broad and comforting presence to my friend in need, the sky darkened. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled as the heavens opened. I sighed…Singapore was having yet another flash flood.

Half an hour later, the conversation ended, but the rain showed no sign of stopping. In fact, it seemed to take a perverse pleasure in getting heavier. It was late and I was hungry. I could not sit around waiting for the rain to stop. And so, cursing under my breath, I stepped out of the house with an umbrella. It was of little use. Although my brolly shielded my head from the rain, the winds just blew the rain right into my face instead, making my front wet. At least my back was dry. I did not dare to tempt the fates by saying “What else can go wrong?” The last thing I wanted was to wrestle with an umbrella turned inside out in the pouring rain. At this point, I could not appreciate how Bollywood movies made the rain seem like so much fun.

Bollywood Hot Rain Masala

The Unemcumbered Spirit by Hong Yingming

Things rarely turn out the way we wish. But is this a bad thing? What do you do when things turn out contrary to your expectations?

400 years ago in China, a Chinese philosopher struggled with this problem. His name was Hong Yingming and he lived during the end of the Ming Dynasty. About his life and career, we do not know much. But his writings suggest that he faced setbacks that may have led him to depart the life of an official for the life of a recluse. As Viktor Frankl wisely put it, “What is to give light must endure the burning.” Because of his trials, Hong Yingming’s writings carry deep insights into life that I enjoy. What follows is a passage that I wish to share for this particular article.

Our ears forever hear things distasteful to them.
Our mind is forever filled with events contrary to our desires.
But such situations are exactly the whetstones for advancing our virtue,
For putting our discipline into practice.
If we always heard words pleasing to our ears,
Living this life would be just like being buried alive in poison

-The Unencumbered Spirit Book 1 Stanza 5

Character and Virtue

It is easy to remain calm when there is nothing to provoke you. It is easy to be composed when things go as planned. It is easy to be content when you have everything you want and need. But times of ease and peace do not reveal true character. Only unpleasant situations can reveal your true mettle. If events that mercilessly press your triggers do not result in a loss of self-control, then you are truly composed. If you can return quickly to your calm centre if you slip in the midst of a crisis, then you are truly calm. How you manage life with your choices and actions will show your true capacity and virtue.

3 Ways to Shape Character and Practice Virtue

I believe that the way we manage small things affects the way we come to manage big things. If I can maintain calm and composure in the midst of minor irritations, then I am likelier to do so in more trying times. If events that press my triggers do not result in a loss of self-control, then I am likelier to manage a crisis well. This requires constant practice and effort. Thankfully, life is most helpful as Hong Yingming points out. Here then are some of the ways I manage unpleasant situations.

1. Find Your Calm Centre

Calm and composure is vital to dealing with adversity. If your emotions control you, it will only cloud your judgement and cause you to waste energy with negativity. We all have a calm centre within us that we can return to, allowing us to remain calm in the eye of the storm. It could be a fond memory of someone you love or a soothing mantra. For me, I try to meditate and focus on my breathing when I find myself losing control of my emotions. I am actually thankful for the chances I get to practice. This only helps me to prepare for greater challenges.

During the heavy rain, I focused on my breathing to return to my calm centre. By managing my thoughts in this way, I rose above the irritation I felt about getting wet. It is not easy, but this is not the first time I have practiced this. I do this in all unpleasant situations I face. Over time, it becomes much easier to return to my calm centre in the midst of a storm, literally and otherwise.

2. Focus on the Solutions

Naturally, things will not change if you do not do something about it. Either you change the situation you are in or you change yourself.

My main goal, during the rain, was to get to the bus stop and find shelter. So I kept walking quickly. Along the way, I knew there was this stretch of road that always accumulated a huge puddle of water during the rain. If I happen to be walking along while cars zipped through the puddle, I would be completely soaked.

There was no time to think about my irritation or discomfort. I had to focus on the present moment to avoid getting wetter. I had to keep an eye on the road and move quickly when there were no cars passing by. Managing my actions and choices in a productive manner is another way I shape my character and practice my virtue.

3. See the Bigger Picture

Each of us has our own perception of the world. But there is also a bigger picture, which we do not always see. Yet it is important to see the bigger picture because it helps us to put things in their proper perspective. This in turn gives us the right frame of mind to get through anything.

As I walked through the rain, I thought of the ongoing flooding of Bangkok. Then I reflected on the mass exodus where the people had to leave their lives and belongings behind to get to safety. Getting a little wet is nothing compared to getting my life displaced by the floods. Yet epic disasters seem to be the new normal in the world today. The fear and the dangers that come with a disaster makes me wonder if I have the capacity to manage a crisis of epic proportions. So what is getting a little wet? With this perspective, I got through the rain as best as I could without any further complain. After all, I am indeed lucky to face such a small trial.

Flooding in Bangkok by Digital Globe Imagery

Taking Action

We do not live in a perfect world. Things do not always turn out as we wish. In fact, many things are beyond our control no matter how much we try to prepare for it. To worsen matters, the world is going through greater and more rapid changes that humans as a whole are not united enough to deal with. Everyday a new crisis happens in some part of the world.

Yet not all is lost. Each of us must continue to practice our virtue and shape our character to prepare to manage anything life has to throw at us. Being prepared is better than not trying at all. This is how the human race has managed to survive and thrive in the midst of adversity, by not giving up.

Are you making full use of the chances you have to shape your character and practice your virtue? What are some of the methods, thoughts and actions that you use to do so? Do share your thoughts and comments below! :)


The Unencumbered Spirit: Reflections of a Chinese Sage by Hong Yingming. Translated by William Scott Wilson. Kodansha USA, 2010.

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  14 Responses to “Shaping Character with the Whetstones of Life”

  1. Ah, the monsoons of Southeast Asia. I remember. But the flodding now in Bangkok. I have several friends there who have taken their families out of the city.

    Your last section highlighted the stark contrast between the world’s problems and the lack of global unity, and what we can do in our own lives. I’m going to another weekend meditation workshop beginning tonight. I think sometimes that’s the best thing I can do. Sit.
    Galen Pearl recently posted..Sit! Stay! Heal!My Profile

    • Hi Galen,

      Yeah things in Bangkok seem to be pretty bad. At least your friends and their families are safe. I hope the rest of the people in Bangkok who have had their lives disrupted by the floods will be able to resume their daily lives again soon. But it looks as if there may be difficult times ahead as well.

      We do live in a very disunited world today. While it is good to discuss matters and have our own opinions on things, too much of a good thing can easily become bad. Being too fixated on our own point of view and interests will only lead to bigger problems in the long run.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  2. Vizier – I’m still impressed with how you inserted a bollywood clip into a post on character. lol

    Putting events in perspective by looking ath the global picture is effective. So is not having a lot of expectation for things in life. A lot of pain, suffering and disappointment is caused by expectation of things going a certain way but then it failing to materialize. The less expectation, the less disappointment.

    • Hi Vishnu,

      Glad you enjoyed the Bollywood clip. ;)

      It is good to look at the bigger or global perspective from time to time. But overreliance on any one method can cause it to lose its effectiveness at the crucial moments. This is why I have a few to keep me afloat in case I need them.

      While it is true that less expectations leads to less disappointment, we must be careful about going off the far end and having no expectations. Such a life would be devoid of joy and meaning. I think it would be better to manage our expectations realistically and to be willing to learn from setbacks to adjust our approach when things do not go our way. This way, we can still reach our goals and have expectations without too much disappointment, pain and suffering.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  3. My Dear Vizier,

    Looks like these few days and even weeks will be wetter and more inconvenient for us Singaporeans. Yet, I love the rain. I am always a sucker for cooler climate. The rampant rain these past few days do bring a lot of respite from the heat.

    Seems like the season has also come for us in terms of the monsoon. The folks in Thailand are do poor thing. Yet, despite their plight, there is still that power struggle between the rich and the poor. Today I read on the straits times how the rich of Bangkok has stocked up and barricaded their homes from the impending floods. But they have complained publicly about how the ruling government whom they do not support have not done their best to keep the flood from their beloved Bangkok.

    I do not want to get into Thai politics, but that attitude from the rich just makes me mad. There are people from the poor and rural countryside dying and suffering, yet these people have the cheek to think of their own comfort. How dare they?

    I brought this up because I feel that there is a character lesson for us. It is my belief that the values that these rich people hold and that’s true world wide as well, comes from the fact that little hardship is experienced while they are growing up. They do not see that there are lots of other people who need help out there still. Their narrow view is clouded by their material riches. I see this happening in Singapore too. The rat race, tuition, 5Cs and all. I am really trying hard to teach my family to become more concerned for people. I do not know how you feel about the people’s values in general here. It would be interesting to know.

    My current trial is shaping me for something bigger. Really, in all my life, this is actually the darkest days of my life. It has never been so tough before. Partly because I was instilled with a sense of responsibility for my family. It is either I make it or they drown. I can’t afford that. How I shape myself to be stronger in virtue and character is through trying to see the brighter future that we have. To be grateful for the things in my life now. And also, to try a road less traveled. Not exactly a favorite of my wife. But I am determined nonetheless.
    Jimmy recently posted..The Complete Blogging for Personal Development Interview SeriesMy Profile

    • Hi Jimmy,

      Yes it is regrettable that the rich in Thailand lack an awareness of the bigger picture. By only protecting their own interests, they will only end up endangering the interests of all to their eventual detriment.

      I feel that it is the responsibility of those with great power to use that power to help those who are less fortunate. This is not only because of karma but also because it makes practical sense when you consider the bigger picture. When the poor receive little help or hope, they are likely to turn desperate and to do whatever is necessary to survive. If this group become sufficiently large enough, things could easily descend into chaos and anarchy which would only cost countless lives rich and poor.

      It probably boils down to an inability for those who were born into riches to place themselves in the shoes of others. But make no mistake, we are all in the same boat and what happens to one part cannot be ignored by the other. It is a matter of spreading awareness I feel.

      As for your current trial clearly you have the drive and the determination to survive. That is well and good. All I can say is to be creative, flexible and adaptable in your approach as needed.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  4. I do what you do – realize I’m letting emotion take over, take some deep breaths, remember who I am, and deal with it. Sometimes I walk away first. Occasionally I let it get the better of me (that’s happened a lot recently over little things). These things seem to come in cycles. I do always reflect afterward at how blessed I have been to only have small trials (I don’t always feel they are small, and to other people they may be quite big, but relative to massive natural disasters, everything is cool).
    Julie | A Clear Sign recently posted..Does The Veil Between Worlds Thin Around Halloween?My Profile

    • Hi Julie,

      Like you, despite my best efforts and vigilance, my emotions still get the better of me at times. What matters is returning to equilibrium as soon as I can.

      I think I will try walking away if it gets too much for me to handle. Sometimes I forget I can walk away haha! Thanks for the reminder! :D

      Indeed everything is relative. I just compare what I go through to extreme examples to ensure that I remember how fortunate I am and then get off my butt and do something about it.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  5. Irving,

    This is a profound verse from Hong Yingming and your commentary is replete with wise counsel. I really appreciate the essence of what you’ve said, which is that life is essentially for practicing virtue. It is the suffering of life that can be the vehicle for liberation.

    I have a lot to practice with these days! I find that some of my own emotional reactions are deeply embedded. I am using two modern day “mantras” from a Buddhist master when one particular set of them arises. In a very kind way, I tell myself “this is not me” and then secondly “it feels real but it’s not true.” This process is helping me slowly, slowly erode away the strength of these particular imprints.

    I appreciate your writing so much. Grateful to have you back.
    Sandra / Always Well Within recently posted..Making Magic HappenMy Profile

    • Dear Sandra,

      It is always a pleasure to read your comments. :D

      I really like Hong Yingming’s reflections. The challenge is for me to find something meaningful to add without belaboring the obvious. I am just grateful that recent events gave me the right context to expound on this particular verse.

      It is not easy to master ourselves when our triggers are pressed. I know that if my buttons are pushed, I can lose my composure in an instant before realizing what is happening. As you have shown us with your kind and gentle approach, molding our character is a process. Step by step, we will be able to free ourselves of our powerful emotions and reactions to events. “With continued perseverance, an iron rod can be whittled down into an iron needle.” (ancient Chinese saying)

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! It is good to be back! :)

  6. This is a lovely post Irving. We can’t escape bad things or unpleasant things happening to us. I’ve found that people I’ve known who have had it relatively easy in life seem shocked and unprepared when something bad does eventually happen to them (and it always does if you live long enough). I have tried to view life like being on a boat in a river. Sometimes the river is calm and scenery is beautiful. And other times there are storms and the boat rocks and tips. But if you are a focused captain of the boat, you will get past the storm and go around the bend to different scenery again. Staying calm and realizing that things always pass helps you navigate the hard times.

    • Hi Barrie,

      Yeah, bad and unpleasant things are part and parcel of life. But going through them is not necessarily bad. As you rightly point out, people who have it easy all the time are usually unprepared to face adversity.

      That is a great analogy you make. Life is certainly like a boat on a river. The uncertainties that a boat faces on its journey is something that all good captains accept with stoicism. This calm acceptance is what they need to manage the challenges that life throws at them.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

      Irving the Vizier

  7. Hi Irving,
    You make so many great points in this post I don’t know where to begin! It’s so easy to be calm and remain centered when nothing goes wrong in our lives. We are tested when things don’t go our way. The more experience we have in handling problems the better we’re going to be at getting through the tough times in life. Better to have a bit of practice under your belt from early on than to have lived life in an ivory tower!
    Angela Artemis/Poweredbyintuition recently posted..Healing Emotional Issues Using Your IntuitionMy Profile

    • Hi Angela,

      Yes it is easy to remain calm and centred when nothing goes wrong. But this is neither a true test of our character and readiness, nor an indication of true calmness. Only adversity and the way we manage it reveals our true character. The good thing is that the more practice we have at handling adversity, the better able we are to manage.

      Living in an ivory tower isn’t wise. But if we have a black belt in handling adversity through constant training and practice, we will be able to manage things well.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

      Irving the Vizier

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