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.
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.