30 Minutes with Michael Levitt


Dr Michael Levitt was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work he did when he was 20. He is now 67. What caught my attention was his profile on a poster I chanced upon at the library. It said he was a “free spirit”, preferred to be called “Michael” with no titles, and that he had visited Burning Man. Fascinated, I emailed him and asked if I could interview him when he came to Singapore. He agreed. It was real fun spending time with him last week. I laughed often during our time together. He is not only brilliant but really down-to-earth and funny. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

When he got news of his Nobel Prize, Michael was quoted as saying “Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn’t change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.” Wow. How many people can say that, I wondered. I asked him about this “wonderful life”. He said he really liked what he did, and had married someone who had been very different from him and really good for him. (They have been married for 45 years.) He did fun things with his family. But it was not just these external things. He had an amazing strength in gratitude…

He said: I feel I have been very lucky. I don’t think “I didn’t win this…I didn’t get this.” I think of all the bad things that haven’t happened to me. ..I didn’t slip on the floor…I didn’t drown in the pool. .. I didn’t fall in the shower. It is the same for each one of us. So many things that could have happened – and these are not unusual things – and didn’t happen. So I am grateful everyday of life.

(I was reminded of what positive psychology researcher Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky has said about gratitude being kind of a “meta-strategy” for achieving happiness.)

As Michael was co-awarded the Nobel Prize with two others, I was very interested in the relationship they had shared that had birthed such a major discovery. He said:What is so nice is I can do one thing and the other is good at something else and neither of us is actually aware of the other‘s area. Oftentimes there’s something really interesting in between. And together we can make a lot of progress with very little investment. There’s a lot of work… some is hard work. But it’s always nice sometimes to do something that is easy, that is on the edge of the two disciplines…

I thought this was such a beautiful way to describe synergy and the beauty of using one’s strengths in synch with others. As a strengths practitioner, it is a joy for me to witness clients describe this very ease that Michael alludes to, when they use their strengths.

Michael said, of one of the co-awardeees: One person was a PhD student when I came there… I came along to be his assistant. And we developed a very strong relationship. Then I came back to work with him for years later. So it was a very close relationship.

This really reminded me of the importance of building close relationships in the workplace if we want powerful synergistic collaborations. To me, the word “teamwork” doesn’t describe it enough. It is some stronger and deeper.

Michael showed a strong appreciation of people and life. He found them interesting and had a strong sense of optimism. He said: People are pretty amazing. Often we set our own limits. Limits will be set for you whether you like it or not. Also this question of being an optimist or pessimist… I think you have no idea what’s going to happen. I keep on thinking of some person whose whole life where he has lived as a pessimist. Ad then nothing happens to him. And on his deathbed, he says “What a waste.. I was pessimistic and nothing happened to me.” It just seems to be that there’s nothing to be gained from it.

I was curious about Burning Man and Michael described his experience in detail. What really struck me was this: People bring stuff to give other people. It’s not barter. They just give it to you. And what’s nice is that …they’re really open. Faces are open….

I could sense the generosity, authentic connection and openness in how fondly he spoke about it. Burning Man is an annual festival and an experiment in community, art, radical self expression and self-reliance. Here are the ten inspiring principles of Burning Man. Sounds pretty amazing!

Every year for the last few years, I have done an experiment to live as if it is my last year to live. Living with awareness of mortality has been transformational for me. And I have to admit that if I didn’t reflect mortality I wouldn’t have asked Michael for this interview. When I know I have limited time, I dare more, I want to serve more impactfully and grow more deeply. :) If you had a year to live, what would you feel drawn to do?

Goodbye, Friend

I highly recommend “Goodbye, Friend” by Gary Kowalski if you’re dealing with the loss of a companion animal.  He is both poetic and practical. Reading his book was one of the steps I took to heal after my dog, Max had to be put down.

Here are some things I learned from him:

– Allow yourself to Grieve. There’s no set time to stop grieving.

– “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” – Ecclesiastes.

Yes, our animals were with us for a season, for a reason. Their role is over in our lives and hopefully we understand what that was.

– Death makes us ask questions such as “Are we getting the most out of life? What more do we need to do or be or accomplish for our own lifetimes to feel complete?” (Please see my post on a Peaceful Death).

– “Any loss can open old wounds”, says Kowalski. If this happens, then I believe, we can heal and transform deeply if we know how to deal with it. Perhaps professional support can be useful. But it needs to be from people who can appreciate the grief we feel for animals. Not all professionals may understand the depth of our feelings for animals. Choose wisely.

– Kowalski says, “Take care of yourself”. He reminds us to eat well and rest well and if possible, not work for a while. I would add that we can allow others to take care of us too. The day after Max died, I visited a friend. She made vegan bread pudding for me, gave me herbal tea and was very gentle in how she was. I felt safe and taken care of.

– Sometimes our animals may suffer from some difficult fate. Kowalski speaks of the anger we may feel and encourages us to find healthy outlets for it, such as writing. Max had cancer and became disabled. I never felt anger but I did feel grief. But I understood that I could learn from what had happened. I was being asked to play new roles in his life. Having this learning approach helped me not feel angry.

– Kowalski mentions how important it can be to be with our animals if they are to be euthanised, and how we can communicate with them before. He says, “We can let our animals know that they are going on a trip, to a place with no strife and no suffering.” He says that we can give them permission to die by expressing our love rather than our need for them.  I watched Max die and it was difficult but I am very grateful I did. I was there to comfort him with our family. It was peaceful and prayerful.

– I love the chapter on “Healing Words” where Kowalski shares about how healing eulogies can be. He says, “When uttered with sincerity, our words may bring us closer to a place of wholeness and peace.”

– What happens after death? I’m glad he mentions varied experiences people have had – of sensing their animal again, of dreams in which their animal was healed (I had these) etc.

– Kowalski reminds us to “take care of ourselves… embrace our feelings… accept our own unique unrepeatable lifespan… pay attention to nature…. cultivate inwardness ….invoke the presence of the sacred.” For me, the paragraphs on these were some of the most healing words in the book. But there are many more…

I’m so grateful to Gary Kowalski for writing this healing gem of a book. You can purchase it from Books Depository. Perhaps you can consider getting it for your local libraries or animal shelters if they don’t have a copy. You can also recommend it to your vet and counsellors you may know of who are open to working with people who have lost their animals.

Related: Healing from the Loss of a Companion Animal 


Healing from Loss of a Companion Animal

My beloved Max died on 11th July. Having to put him down was the most difficult thing I have done in my life.  But he was suffering and I remembered: “If you love someone, let them go”. I write this for those of you who have lost a companion animal.

About a year before Max became sick, I asked myself: “If I were to die soon, what would my biggest regret be with regards to Max?” The answer that emerged was that I didn’t bring him to the beach enough. From then onwards, I brought him to the beach regularly – more in that one year than in ten years! He even overcame his fear of swimming. We had wonderful, wonderful days at the beach. And I am thankful I asked myself that question. It transformed our time together.

Before he died, I gave thanks to him for being my teacher, my healer, my catalyst and child.  He changed me in many ways, teaching me unconditional love and patience. He opened many hearts while on his wheelchair. I wrote down the lessons he had taught me.

I apologised to him for not having done enough for him during his younger days.

I used “Rescue Remedy for Pets” in his last days.

I brought him to the beach often.

On the day we put him down, we all gathered around him, and prayed, and said goodbye.  There was quiet in the room.

The grief was tremendous after he left us. Like a big gaping hole in my heart. And a sense of disbelief. I cried alot.

In the days that followed, many interesting things happened to reassure me that he was in a better place, and also, in a way, still around. Those are very personal but I just want to share that if you lose an animal, stay open to signs and messages you may receive…yet do no expect them. Just stay present. (You may also like to watch the movie, “What dreams may come”. I recalled the scene with the dog with a sense of peace.)

A few days after he died, I felt Called to start a page for those serving animals. It keeps Max “alive” for me. How can his memory benefit others? That’s the question I have asked myself.

I read “Goodbye Friend” by Gary Kowalski. I felt understood, connected to many who have lost their animals and to all of humanity for we all suffer all kinds of losses.   It is beautifully and soulfully written. Here’s an excerpt:
“But if the things that we can do are limited, the things that we can be are manifold: patient, accepting, and compassionate with ourselves, sensitive to the currents of sympathy that surround is, and hopeful that even in the midst of sorrow the future will open new possibilities for life. Inside each one of us is a center that is affirming rather than negating, expansive rather than constricting. Finding that center and holding to it can help us live creatively even when the world round about seems chaotic and confused.”

Here’s an interview with the author, Gary Kowalski.

There are other books on loss of companion animals. Perhaps you may find one that speaks to you in the way you need.

A few days ago, I laid out Max’s things. And just bore witness to them quietly. Each item reminded me of a role I had played in his life, or a role I hadn’t played – perhaps an opportunity lost even. But even with the regrets, I reminded myself that i could learn my lessons and apply them to my loved ones who are still around.

I then threw away most things; decided to donate some and kept a few. The few I kept are now sacred objects to me of a very important relationship in my life. I kept his bowl because he LOVED to eat, even till the end. I kept his dog toy because it reminds me of the spirit of play which he brought into my life. I kept the pair of scissors which I used to groom him with. Grooming him allowed me to practise physical caring for another being. It was a time of quiet connection, of trust on his part that I wouldn’t hurt him and trust in myself that I would be mindful and not hurt him. (Over ten years, I nicked him once!)


The healing journey continues. Today I donated his wheelchair to Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital in case another dog needs it. And I collected his ashes. These are triggers for tears. And I accept them. Crying heals.

Somedays I want to write this to him:

Sometimes I forget

that you’re not here anymore

And I expect to find you when I come home…

When food falls on the floor

I half expect you to come for it

But sometimes I remember too clearly

that you’re not basking in the sunlight anymore

and it is now just a square patch of empty light

And that I cannot see your beautiful face 

Or touch you 

and your heavenly paw

But sometimes I forget….


I have not found many places to go to for support for the loss of a companion animal in Singapore. So this is a small offering from my heart to yours if you have lost a loved animal.

When he died, I really did not know how my heart would heal. He’s irreplaceable. But the heart does heal; not in a linear way, but in its own way at its own pace and guided by things I do to help facilitate that.

I wish you healing.



Related: Goodbye, Friend

Interview: Toh Yeng Yen, Waldorf educator

As I have shared before, I had to unlearn many things I was taught in school. And learn many things that were not taught in school.

So when I learned about the Waldorf education model years ago, I was interested. Then when I met Chrys Soenaris, a parent who was well-versed in it, I was amazed. And when I met her daughter, Gabby, I was completely won over. Gabby was sagely, inquisitive, deep compassionate, energetic, artistic, JOYful and so many other beautiful things. I recently got to meet other parents and teachers who use the waldorf method and am deeply inspired.

So what is the Waldorf way? If you’re curious, please watch this short intro and share with parents, educators and leaders in education.

Toh Yeng Yen is one of the Waldorf educators I met recently.  She was brimming with passion for her work! Below is my short interview with her. What she says about teachers is especially important.

Q:You’re incredibly passionate about Steiner’s work! Please share more about your personal journey and connection with it.
A: Thank you for your comment! I got to know about Steiner’s philosophy when I was attending a ‘Creative Discipline’ workshop by Linda Hall in the year 2007. That opened me up to an education that allows me, as a teacher, to work on myself while nurturing our children. I find myself loving myself more over the years. And I find this crucial for all human beings.

Q: You mentioned that who the teacher is matters alot in Steiner’s work. Please share more.
A: Yes. I have learned from my training and conferences that it is the teacher that matters, not the subject that the teacher is teaching. If the teacher cares and builds relationships with the children, he/she would be able to attend to the needs of the children. When the children love their teachers, you will be amaze how much they could learn.
Q: Who are you as a Waldorf educator?
A: An educator who learns, unlearns and relearns. Every child is unique. What do I learn from this child and what are the things I can do for her/him to support their grow to become a balanced, warm and loving human being? “Education is not filling a vessel, but lighting a fire.” Carl Jung.

Q: What is it like to learn to be a Waldorf educator?
It is the beginning! I have colleagues from overseas who learn on-the-job to become a Waldorf teacher. We are simply one step faster by learning the essences through courses. It’s how we live what we have learned that matters, not the number of courses that we have attended.

Please click Waldorfcourse for more information on an upcoming course for 6 to 8 year olds by Yeng Yen.

This is another wonderful video on the inner life of the teacher by the Center for Courage and Renewal.

Related: Resources on Education


Interview: Rob Laidlaw

Rob Laidlaw and I used to be colleagues in the animal protection field a long time ago. We lost contact for many years and I’m so happy that we have recently resumed contact. He’s now an award-winning author. And I just read one of his books, “Saving Lives & Changing Hearts”, a book on animal sanctuaries and rescue centres.

Those of us in animal protection sometimes are surrounded by news and images of immense cruelty. This book helps us take a different perspective – a hopeful one. It is healing and restores our faith in people. It is also a great book to teach compassion to children.  It is full colour and full of endearing photos of the animals.

Rob shares many stories of how animals who were in danger or suffering were rescued and now live a much better life. I love the story of Little Pig who fell off a truck on its way to a slaughterhouse and is now in Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary. And the story of Maggie, the elephant, whose family was killed and who was then sent to a zoo. After another elephant died, Maggie was alone. Rob shares how in 2007, Maggie was lying on one side and couldn’t get up.  She was finally sent to Performing Animal Welfare Society in 2008, where she is with other elephants.

I’m glad Rob warms us to not be taken in by entities which claim to be sanctuaries but which aren’t. And also points us to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Here’s a short interview I did with Rob.


Q: Among your various books, you say you like the sanctuary book best? Tell me more. 

A: My sanctuary book was a bit of a departure from my other books in that it focused less on the problems of wildlife in captivity and more on some of the solutions. I think it’s a positive book that demonstrates that it’s possible to have a more humane and equitable relationship with animals, even animals in captivity, in a way that doesn’t exploit or diminish them and that puts their interests as the highest priority. I think it’s important to remember that and to try to learn lessons from good sanctuaries and apply what we’ve learned to animals in all kinds of other situations.

Q: You documented animal suffering for decades. What made you turn your attention to those doing good for animals?

A: I’ve seen many people in the animal protection movement lose sight of the fact that you can’t always be negative. With the sheer scale of animal suffering I think it’s easy to fall into that way of thinking, but sometimes you also need to think about the good that has happened, even if only at the level of individual animals. We all have to realize that sometimes if we think more positively about how to approach the problems that animals face and offer some solutions then we can push forward faster with an animal protection agenda. I think the best sanctuaries do that and that’s why I wanted to highlight them.

Q: How did research for the sanctuary book impact you?

A: Even though I don’t usually show it, I’m always affected by animals. While I was visiting sanctuaries prior to writing this book I was more amazed than ever how forgiving the animals were. Some of them had come from the most horrendous backgrounds imaginable, yet they were curious, friendly, playful and engaging. Seeing them that way after all they’ve been through motivated me to work harder to try to help animals.

Q: When you recall your time in the sanctuaries, which animal do you remember the most? What was its story?

A: I remember many of the animals. I find all of them memorable in their own way. One group of animals that I clearly recall are a group horses at a California sanctuary. They came from a variety of different backgrounds. Some were seized by the authorities because they were being badly abused, while others had been abandoned. Those horses had formed bonds and friendships with each other and it was a delight to watch them and see how much they relied on each other for comfort and security.


The bears at an Indian bear sanctuary also stick out in my memory. After horrendous lives on the street, some of them existing in dire circumstances for decades, they were enjoying life in large forested enclosures and were doing all kinds of bear things. It was amazing to see them foraging, digging and even climbing trees, just like their wild counterparts would. For some of those bears, I wouldn’t have thought they could recover to that extent. It goes to show we should never give up on any captive animal. If we have a chance to give them a better life, we should make every attempt to do just that. I have many similar kinds of memories.

Photo credit: Rob Laidlaw.

Thank you, Rob, for sharing!


~ This book was a shift for Rob. He used a different lens to look at animals and contribute to their welfare. Could your own work do with a new approach? An approach that may be more appreciative or healing?

~ Teachers, parents, travelers – why not visit an animal sanctuary and learn of the stories of healing and transformation that have happened? It will help the animals and yourselves more than visiting entities that profit from animal suffering. Visit the GFAS site. Not all sanctuaries are open to visitors. Please check directly with the sanctuaries.

If you’re in Asia, visit Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.  I’ve met Lek and she’s a very courageous woman dedicated to elephants.

~ You can buy “Saving Lives & Changing Hearts” at Books Depository which has free shipping. Please recommend that your local and school libraries get a copy. 

 – Check out Zoocheck Canada, an organisation that Rob co-founded. 

– This interview was done for my new page, For Those Serving Animals. If you like it, press the “like” button and we can stay connected there. Please share with fellow animal advocates and other supporters of animals. Thank you.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

“An education that enables and enhances personal introspection and contemplation leads to the realization of our inextricable connection to each other, opening the heart and mind to true community, deeper insight, sustainable living, and a more just society.” – The Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society

This tree from The Centre illustrates beautifully the many contemplative practices available. Fo explanations of each, go to their site.


Love is….

I wrote this in preparation for an activity run by PIES cafe at Greenleaf Centre (Asia). We were asked to reflect on what Love is.

Love is a verb.

Love is Presence.
Love is most precious when it is most tested.
Love Heals.
Love Transforms.
Love Liberates.
Love is Forgiveness, Gratitude, Apology, Growth.
Love needs Wisdom.
Love is needed where it is most forgotten. At the workplace. On the roads. To ourselves. To those who hurt us. To those we never meet.
Love is the journey. And the destination.
Love is why we’re here.


Do Not Mourn


This is the one of the most inspiring obituaries I have seen.
What would you want yours to read?
Thank you to Jacelyn who’s teaching us even after leaving us, and to her family for honouring her spirit and life in this way.
It was in The Sunday Times 14 April 2013 and so was Sumiko Tan’s article on death where she says: “We will all die, there’s no doubt about that. The question is, while we are alive, do we know about to live?”


This is my third year of living with death awareness and enjoying its benefits. Read more death-related posts under this category.

Uncle Sweets

Today I met “Uncle Sweets”, a taxi driver who keeps a bowl of sweets for his customers.
Me: What made you start doing this, Uncle?
Uncle Sweets: I pick up all the drunk people and after vomitting, they ask me: “Uncle, do you have a sweet? My throat is bitter.” So now I give sweets to everyone!
Me: Ha! Who takes them?
Uncle Sweets: Adults! Not children!This started a long conversation of him sharing about how he has triumphed over a stroke, a lung operation, heart surgery. He spoke on the power of positive thinking. I was inspired by his resilience, hope and humour. He spoke of customers who sometimes don’t pay him. And how he chooses his own safety over money. He was effervescent, wearing pink pants and a grey shirt.

I said: You’re so fashionable Uncle!
Uncle Sweets: Eh, look at my belt!
And he showed me a stylish red belt. We both laughed.
And before we knew it, the long trip was over.
All this from asking about the little box of sweets.

Reach out and start a conversation with someone new…

(Written on 14 May 2013)

Synchroncity-led Interview

I met Priscilla through synchronicity.
I go for an art class (which is very unusual in the first place) in a lovely faraway place in Bukit Batok called heartspace.
And I sit down and the art therapist, Joanna Tan, introduces me to Priscilla.
I ask her what she does. And she says she’s a local designer.
I ask her the name of her label. (not that i know anything about labels but i had a strange inkling of what she might say.)
And she says, “Chalk”.
And my jaw literally drops.
I had just bought a dress from Chalk to wear for my debate on happiness on Channel News Asia.
What are the odds?
And later when I showed what I had drawn to the class, Priscilla said she had had a vision of what I had drawn before I drew it.
Anyway, we have met up a few times with Roland, her husband.


Priscilla and Roland have just started a blog and here’s an extract from it:
“Recently married and constantly searching for each other and for ourselves. Through all these moments, apart, or in each others’ embrace, we shape each other, and in so doing, shape ourselves. This process is sometimes easy, often painful, but never wasted. The easy part is falling in love. The pain comes from being in love, staying in love.

This shaping hurts, because it wills one against oneself for the sake of another. But yet it is not martyrdom, because the shaping occurs both ways. This will is called compassion.

Through the past year, we realize that this love and compassion cannot be limited to ourselves if we want it to be true. We are sentient beings living amongst other sentient beings. We can no longer ignore the sufferings caused by our wants and desires. And for this reason we have decided to abstain from animal produce as a first step to grow in our love for each other.”

Priscilla recently interviewed me for her blog and here’s the piece:


Thanks, Priscilla and Roland, for expanding your love to include animals!
And thanks to my friend, Usha Das, for choosing the dress for me and introducing me to Chalk. You never know where things may lead! :) Life is magical.