Life is stressful but how you react is everything

By Ryan Goh

In a moment of metacognition, I realised the events that happened yesterday demonstrate that meditation may be helping me deal with stress way better than I thought.

It’s going to be a personal and reflective post so forgive me if this post doesn’t bring anything of value to you.

Why was yesterday stressful?

Well, firstly, it’s the exam marking period for us. Exam marking and the subsequent processing of results is a stressful affair because the school makes such a big deal of it and any errors that may get picked up during this period.

Second, we’re given this unnaturally short period to mark (think hundreds of scripts within 4-5 days) which cannot be extended when your exam paper comes in at the end of the examination schedule. That’s exactly the scenario I’m faced with this semester.

On top of that, I have administrative duties as the coordinator for Year One modules. This means that I am the recipient of the exam documents concerning all these modules. No thanks to the lateness of my paper, all these documents were only being submitted to me at the moment when I was about to begin marking.

Throw in the fact that I’m the class advisor for a student who missed all her exams due to medical reasons and I have the school asking me if she’ll be able to take the make-up papers.

On top of that, the cheap ballpoint pen provided by my school leaked and stained my shirt pocket; subsequent attempts to remove the ink even left a stain on my bedroom door. At this point, I felt like a loser.

How I dealt with it

Amazingly, between dealing with all of the above mentioned, I actually managed to set aside a bit of time to enjoy a delicious Phad Thai dinner at a neighbourhood hawker centre and buy some hope in the form of two lottery tickets (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t win a thing or even if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it publicly, would I?).

I also met my quota for marking. Marking 300+ scripts distributed across 14 stacks is like eating an elephant; You don’t do it all at once. You set a target, say 4-5 stacks a day and when you hit it, you don’t proceed further even if you could.

Having adequate rest is as important as accomplishing the task at hand.

The other things beyond my control.....well folks were looking for me during times I was planning to do something else. A colleague wanted to submit her documents just when I was preparing to leave. And she had queries that eventually made me fire up my computer just to send an email.

I could have gotten angry. I could have gotten frustrated. But I didn’t. I felt irritation building within my system but I didn’t get irritated. I think this is what it means to recognise that yes, external circumstances or people can be irritating or annoying but whether we get irritated or annoyed eventually comes down to a choice that we can make.

I cannot control the actions of others but I certainly can control mine. And if I can control myself, then I’m in charge and if I’m in charge, I can strive to make sure things turn out the right way.

Intractable Problems

That’s exactly what I did with the ink stain. I wasn’t going to get it out without a whole bottle of rubbing alcohol. Furthermore, the ink stain wasn’t really that obvious since my shirt was dark-coloured.

Was it worth it to get annoyed with an ink-stained shirt or door?

So I left it alone.

And after leaving it alone, I could focus my attention on the people and things that mattered – my wife, my cat, the latest chapters of Manga.

After all, my wife has been deliberating over very important matters for some days now. I’m not sure if she’s arrived at an answer but I hope my inputs have made sense.


I’m beginning to think meditation helps because it seeks to make deep, slow breathing second nature. When external stressors hit us, the body’s typical response is to make our breathing quicker and our field of vision becomes more narrower.

That made sense millennia ago when external stressors posed genuine danger to your existence but in this day and age, they usually aren't life-threatening.

In fact, the body’s natural response is probably counter-productive when you should be assessing things calmly and taking stock of the big picture. You don’t want to win the battle but lose the war.

I am of the belief meditation has made me become less reactive to external stressors. I should caution though: it’s not a miracle cure for everything. It’s not a magic pill. Much practice and conscious mental effort must be invested to reap significant benefits.

In hindsight, I think yesterday went fairly well.

This was first published over at Mr Ryan Goh's blog. It is reproduced with permission.


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