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?

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.

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)

David Rand on Mindful Leadership

On 21 March 2013, David Rand gave a lecture on “Mindful Leadership” at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore.  He is the Executive Director of the Tenzin Gyatso Institute in New York. The Institute promotes compassion, empathy and universal responsibility through education, social action and religious harmony.  In 2012, they organised the first Compassion and Empathy conference in London attended by around 600 professionals and students.

David Rand

Here are some of my notes from the talk as well as some highlights from our lunch together two days later.

On Mindful Leadership

Mindful Leadership places emphasis on self-awareness, empathy, altruism, intentionality, being aware of the consequences of one’s actions and speech, emotional connectedness and transcending one’s ego. Without it, we are seeing a rise of ethics-related scandals, turnover and loss of talent and greater sickness in society.

Leaders are responsible for making many decisions that affect many lives. And when one is stressed or angry, David said that one sees about 10% of the picture. So emotional regulation is key to rational decision-making.  Having a mindfulness practice such as sitting in silence and counting one’s breath helps with this. Researchers have found that doing this for 20 minutes a day, thrice a week for 8 weeks will show benefits.

David said those studying brain science highlight how mindfulness and self-awareness strengthen one’s ability to empathise and reduce aggression.

“Your happiness is connected to mine”, David reminded us, and leaders who think in this way will make different decisions.

Mindfulness helps to address a wandering mind.  David cited a Harvard study which found that people spend about 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. This mind-wandering makes people unhappy.

One member of the audience said that leaders have to learn so many skills, and said people have a limited bandwith so adding mindfulness, self-awareness, empathy and compassion to that was stretching that bandwith. I found this interesting, I see these as life-skills, not only leadership skills. They help you have good relationships with your family, friends, community etc. Also, I see these as foundational leadership skills, not “extras”. This is the core, the roots, the anchor. And mindful leadership sounded very akin to servant leadership which I am a proponent of.

Over lunch, David and I chatted about …

Mobile phone addiction (people driving or walking while looking at their phones)

David said: “It’s wonderful to stay connected to friends and family but it’s symptomatic of another distraction. It’s easy to be more distracted than focussed. Distractions keep us from being present.”

What effects mindfulness has had on his life

“Healthier relationships, seeing oneself and others differently”


David was open to picking a Virtues Reflection card from the deck I brought. He picked Awe. And so I asked what brings him awe. He said: “I am in awe of how it is easy to lose sight of how awesome life is.” :)

The Institute’s Work 

Videos of the Compassion and Empathy Conference are available online. Check out resources for youth. 

Professor Richard Layard on the Government's role in increasing happiness and reducing misery

In April 2012, the Institute organised “Happiness and Sustainability” a dialogue between Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General and Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Center for Bhutan Studies.  (Under the leadership of Bhutan, sixty-eight countries co-sponsored a UN resolution titled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development,” and on April 2 the Royal Government of Bhutan convened a high-level meeting at the UN on “Happiness and Well-Being.”)

"Happiness and Sustainability" dialogue at Rubin Museum. Photo Credit: Michael Palma

The Institute has plans to run the Compassionate Decision-Making and Leadership  conference in 2014. 

You can support the Institute. 


For more information on mindfulness,  see

Walking a labyrinth


The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Center for Mindfulness at UC San Diego



The Labyrinth – A Sacred Path

“A labyrinth is a single path or unicursal tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation. Labyrinths are thought to enhance right brain activity.”  ~ The Labyrinth Society

 The labyrinth is not a maze. There are no tricks to it and no dead ends. It has a single circuitous path that winds its way into the center. The person walking it uses the same path to return from the center and the entrance then becomes the exit. The path is in full view, which allows a person to be quiet and focus internally….There are many ways to describe a labyrinth. It is a path of prayer, a walking meditation, a crucible of change, a watering hole for the spirit and a mirror of the soul. ~ www.veriditas.org

Labyrinths have been found to reduce anxiety and stress, equalise blood pressure and enhance peace, clarity, centeredness, relaxation and increase reflection. For more benefits, see Commonly Reported Effects of Labyrinth Walking . They are especially useful in healthcare settings.  See below this article for more resources.

I walked my first labyrinth in New York, with the support of Reverend George Kuhn. And my second walk in Singapore at Lifesprings Spirituality Centre was guided by Edwina Yeow.

Labyrinth I walked at Lifesprings, Singapore
I think the labyrinth can be a wonderful tool to help us in these hurried times.  I hope we see more of them in healthcare settings, educational institutions and public places. I especially think the finger labyrinth can be used at workplaces for staff to have a few moments of relaxation so they can get back to work in an enhanced state. It also helps people get to know each other in a new and deeper way so walking a labyrinth with co-workers could strengthen relationships.
This was my visual harvest of my walk. The walk helped me clarify something regarding my work.
Here’s my interview with Edwina. Edwina (and Brother George) facilitates labyrinths walks for people of all faiths.
Please share more about your deep connection with labyrinths. 

At the risk of sounding fanciful, I’d say the labyrinth found me when I was ready to work with it. I first saw a picture of one some 8 years ago and, to be honest, I wasn’t interested enough to even ask what it was. But a year later it came to my attention again, in a different context, and I found myself totally and inexplicably fascinated by it. I wanted to understand what it was about, where I could walk one, etc. I felt a compelling desire to experience the labyrinth for myself and to share it with others, even before I knew very much about its origins or use. Enough for me that the one design I was attracted to had been used for centuries in the Catholic Church for meditative purposes. So I suppose that my response was very instinctive… and remains so as I continue to work with the labyrinth. Each time I walk it myself or facilitate for others who walk it, and all my reading and research confirms for me the richness of the labyrinth as a tool for arriving at greater self-awareness, and spiritual and psychological wholeness.

Labyrinth I walked in New York ~ Vadivu

How has your work with labyrinths impacted how you view and experience life?

My experience with the labyrinth reaffirms for me the connectedness of all life at the inter- and intra-personal levels, across space and time, transcending life and death. The labyrinth reminds me that all is gift and that the Source of all life is benevolent, loving, joyous, and that all creation is being invited into wholeness, regardless of how long, winding, sometimes painful and wearying the process, and in spite of how many times we might need to revisit a place in our lives to remember, to learn, to hold, to forgive, to let go.

The labyrinth teaches me that there are no wrong turns, and that every seeming regression is a progression if I only keep walking with openness to learn. It teaches me that in reality I can understand and control very little in my life. But what I do have is my free will and the deepest, truest desire of my spirit… and that Life honours this and invites me to walk trustingly along this path to its fulfilment.

Labyrinth I walked in New York ~ Vadivu

Please share about your facilitation of labyrinth walks for teachers and students. What has it done for these groups?

The labyrinth walks for teachers and students were set within the context of a retreat or day of reflection for the respective groups. Perhaps because our lives are lived so much on the ‘outside’ as we attend to the needs of daily living: the job, the family, the religious institution, etc., the gift of the labyrinth when experienced in a group is that it allows the individual his/her own space and gives him/her ‘permission’ to be fully attentive to his/her own inner journey, while sharing the labyrinth with others. The fruit of these reflective walks is then shared in a safe, facilitated process which deepens the experience and creates a stronger empathic bond between the participants because they connect at a deeper level than the merely superficial, which is generally the norm.

At the same time, in learning to listen to each other, participants may be challenged or may gain truths and insights they need for their own journey. Above all, they discover that they are not alone, and that if they choose, they can support and encourage each other, and share what has been helpful to them on their own journey.

Who could benefit from a labyrinth walk? 

In my experience, anyone could benefit from a labyrinth walk, so long as s/he is able to walk, even with assistance, or be pushed in a wheelchair (provided the labyrinth is large enough to accommodate one). Labyrinths have been enjoyed by persons of all ages, races and creeds, young and old, in good health or suffering from terminal illness, in happy times or in times of grief and loss… any season of life.

Other than individuals, how much potential do you see for organisations to offer this experience to their employees or members? What kind of organisations may be ripe for it?

I would say service-related organisations, especially in health-care and education sectors would benefit by providing the labyrinth experience to their employees/ members as it allows them to self-care and be cared for, where they are so used to caring for others.

It can facilitate among the members deeper understanding, compassion and rapport inter- and intra-personally, and ultimately foster a more empowered, cohesive community within the organization.

Having said that, the labyrinth could also be useful for any organization that desires to promote psychological wellness among its employees.

What is the relevance of labyrinths in today’s world?

Researchers have observed that when we retrace the history of the labyrinth, we see that over the centuries, the labyrinth flourished in different parts of the world, and then died down, only to flourish anew in a different time and place. But the times when and the places in which the labyrinth flourished always coincided with times and places in human history when there were great upheavals politically, economically or socially, and when life was experienced as rapidly changing and uncertain.

Today we are experiencing another such revival of the labyrinth, and the signs of the times lend credence to the observation. Perhaps now more than ever before, we need the clarity and inner strength and security that comes from knowing in the core of our being, who we are and who/what gives life meaning and security… deep truths that the labyrinth can help us arrive at.

Just walk. Have no expectations. That's what I did for both the walks I have done. ~ Vadivu

Could you share more about finger labyrinths?

The finger labyrinth is a labyrinth design printed on plastic/ paper or etched in wood/ metal that is small enough to be traced with a finger. It is a good alternative for those who are unable to walk the actual labyrinth and can be used anywhere and at any time as it is so portable.

What further suggested resources do you recommend – online and off line?

These are some resources which may be useful…





Artress, L. (2006). Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. The Berkely Publishing Group, USA.

West, M. G. (2000). Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth.

Broadway books, New York.


Edwina will facilitate the next labyrinth walk in Singapore on 6th April 2013. Please contact her at yeowedwina@yahoo.com to register or enquire about other group walks (minimum 10 persons, maximum 15 persons).  

Edwina also has a canvas labyrinth which  is 8 metres by 8 metres and has been used at the  beach, in school and church halls, and in hotel and clubhouse function rooms.

You can purchase finger labyrinths for use at work or home at iSpiritual. How to use a finger labyrinth. 

Download finger labyrinths and screensaver. 

12 Reasons for Hospitals to Have Labyrinths

Approaching your healthcare institution to get a labyrinth

More research.

Solomon King

I did my graduate internship with the Humane Society of the United States a couple of years ago. And I had to look for a place to stay in Maryland. I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anyone in it.  And I couldn’t have imagined my time there would lead to this post today.

Mieko King was the landlady of the house I finally rented a room in. Her son was Solomon. And over the time I spent with Mieko, I got to know Solomon. But I never met him.

Solomon was killed in a hit-and-run on Travilah Road, Rockville, Maryland, USA on 13th November 2004. The driver was never caught. Police have described the car as a dark Honda with dark, tinted windows, a 4-door model from 1998-2000. They said the right-front section of the vehicle may have damage from the collision.

Courtesy Mieko King.

But he was more than a faceless victim. Through Mieko, I learned about this special young man.

Solomon was a courageous soul.

Solomon’s life as a child was not easy but he overcame the challenges to become a brave, compassionate and witty boy who brought much laughter and joy to others.

Solomon’s father died when he was four. Mieko King, his mother, brought him up to be a strong young man with sound values so as she put it, “people would never have reason to say he was lacking in any way because he came from a single parent family”.

Solomon suffered third degree burns on his right arm when he was young in an accident at home. He covered his hands for a long time, afraid of stares and what people might say. Then with the love and support of his friends, one day he bravely bared his scarred arm. He inspired great respect for his courage. At one time doctors predicted that Solomon would not write; yet he went on to even continue with his etching artwork.

"I raised Solomon for 16 years and in a second someone took his life away" - Mieko King

Solomon was a poet

Solomon was an artist. 

Hana, Solomon's beloved dog

Soloman was a friend.

Solomons’ friends loved him. They still get together with Mieko on his death anniversary – almost ten years after he died.  That is testimony to the kind of person he was.

Here’s what two of his friends said about him after he was killed:

He was a friend, he gave advice when someone needed it and most of all you could trust him to never leave your side when you needed him… During the school year, Sol and I would always talk about what we were going to do later that afternoon. …These talks helped me to get through many things I couldn’t have gotten through by myself. Sol helped me to get a better understanding through by myself. Sol helped me to get a better understanding of myself and everyone else around me. Sol I love and miss you so much. Life is going to be a lot harder without you.

– TL

You were one of the most caring, loving, whole-hearted funny people I have ever known…. On my fifteenth birthday at exactly 12.00am you called to wish me a happy birthday and came over to celebrate with Alex Santini and I in the snow. You made me feel special. Then we went to sleep and when I woke up my driveway was shoveled. What a wonderful surprise birthday present from my best friend.

– AL

Solomon and Friends

Soloman was a friend to animals too.

He adored Hana, his dog.

And when birds crashed into his home window, he would bury them in the garden, remembering what his mother had taught him on respect for even dead animals.

Solomon was thoughtful. 


Mieko transforms Pain to Love

“I raised Solomon for 16 years and in a second someone took his life away…I don’t want to see young people die.”  – Mieko King

Despite the grief of losing her only child, Mieko has acted with such grace and compassion.

She made the decision to donate Solomon’s organs after his death.

Solomon loved art. So Mieko set up a scholarship in honour of Solomon’s extremely giving spirit. The scholarship aims to support Wooten High School students who would like to take pursue art-related courses outside school. Priority is given to students from single parent families. The Scholarship Fund is managed by Wooten High School. Mieko aims to include students who may not be straight-A students but who have a passion and inclination for art. She wants the scholarship to let them know she believes in them – and so would have Solomon.

Mieko King with Wendy, a scholarship recipient

Solomon, Hana, Mieko and I

When I first rented a room in Mieko’s house, Solomon’s room was left in the same way it had been since the day he died. Hana hid under his bed a lot. She didn’t used to when he was alive.

I only stayed for part of that summer. But Hana , Mieko and I became friends. She looked after me like family.

A thoughtful note Mieko left me on the first day of my graduate internship. I appreciated it alot especially as I was in a new place and knew nobody, and so far from home.


Mieko's kindness and thoughtfulness transformed her from my landlady into a friend.


Life sends us in such unexpected directions where we find unexpected friends.

The next time I visited Mieko months later, something had changed. Solomon’s room has been tidied up and I stayed there. I wasn’t afraid because I had come to know who he was.

During that trip, I took a photo of Solomon’s photo in the living room. And suddenly the flowers near his photo caught the sunlight and became very beautiful. It was like he was the Light. I felt a warmth in my heart.

As I took a photo of Solomon's photo, suddenly the flowers beside the photo lit up with sunlight.


I write this for various reasons.

I want to humanise Solomon and Mieko. They represent the many faceless people whose wellbeing we may not think of as they are “strangers” we’re just passing by on the road or through life.

Yes, it would help  if the person who hit Solomon owned up now. But I write this also for the rest of us.

Let us learn to be present wherever we are, especially if we are behind the wheel. I now see many people using their phones when driving. Each time you feel like doing that, please think of Solomon. You may hit someone just like him. 

Hit-and-run accidents happen not just on roads but in our daily lives. Sometimes we hurt people emotionally and move off not knowing the impact we have had.

I never met Solomon but I got to know him through Mieko’s eyes.  He was precious – as precious as each of us.  And so is Mieko. May we learn to be conscious of the impact we have on each other’s lives.

Let us learn the value of owning up to our mistakes and understand that we may hold the key to greater closure for someone.

Let us learn to apologise: Sorry – Part 1,  Sorry – Part 2 I often feel we are so advanced technologically but have forgotten the basics of how to treat our fellow human beings. If for some reason, you cannot apologise directly to someone, you can post on the Levine’s Apology Page. You could donate to or support a cause that is related to how you may have hurt someone. And of course, the best sorry is personal transformation. 

I thank Mieko for continuing to allow Solomon’s story to touch and change more lives. To me, he is an angel, still helping us after he has left.

How has this story impacted you? Please leave any feedback so I can share it with Mieko.  Let her know how Solomon has left a legacy in your life. Thank you.

Accidents on Montgomery Road Kill Two Teens

Neighbours Dedicate Playground to Solomon King

We don’t know what was happening with the driver that caused the accident. But I do know that texting and driving is becoming a threat to many lives today so please support the Stop the Texts campaign and take Oprah’s No Phone Zone pledge. Help share this powerful video.

Why are the Danes so Happy?

Ambassador Basse and I (Photo copyright: Joy Works.)

As I was doing research for my debate on Channel News Asia on happiness, Denmark kept popping up as the world’s happiest country in various surveys. I got curious. What was happening there?

So I wrote to the Danish Ambassador in Singapore, Berit Basse, and asked if I could meet her. I’m very grateful she kindly agreed.

Education Is the Key

Ambassador Basse said that the most important ingredient to Danish happiness was education in her opinion. They focus on education as children can influence their parents. Also, children are easier to teach than adults!


Children in Denmark learn how to learn. They are given time to play. They are not pressured into memorising things. (Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Ty Stange)

So in kindergarten and schools, children:

  • Do more project work
  • Take responsibility for their own learning
  • Learn to learn
  • Are given more time for play
  • Are nurtured to become independent thinking responsible citizens learning democratic rules
  • Learn consensus-based decision-making as well as when to go with decisions that are made by powers-that-be
  • Are encouraged to do community work
  • Are taught healthy living and especially the importance of sports/exercise
  • Are taught to be environment-friendly
  • Are exposed to teachings from various religions
  • Are not pressured into learning things by heart.

Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: WoCo)
Cherished Values

These are some of the cherished values in Denmark:

  • The  golden rule – treat others as you want to be treated
  • Respect for others
  • Initiative to identify problems and do something about it
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Truth

Ambassador Basse said that relationships are very important to the Danish – family, work, community. And I could see that by promoting the golden rule and respect for each other, they were building a nation of people who knew how to treat each other well.

Why are the Danes happy at work?

Some secrets to workplace happiness for the Danes: Positive relationships, Autonomy and often, Having chosen Work they authentically want to do. ( Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Tuala Hjarnø)
  • People generally enjoy a 37 hour work week and excellent family friendly policies
  • They are encouraged to have influence and control over their own work.
  • Good relationships with colleagues are a major reason why the people enjoy work
  • Although they may not use the term “workplace happiness”, they do put a lot of focus on job satisfaction surveys.
  • They have flex security.

She also said, “It’s fashionable to prioritise family”.

Denmark provides free education, free healthcare, subsidised childcare and elderlycare and students are given an allowance.

I am inspired by Denmark for all it does for its people. Yet I don’t want us outside Denmark to feel that happiness is not within our reach because our countries may not have similar systems.

The Inner Life

Happiness researcher, Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book, “The How of Happiness” says that our happiness is determined 50% by genes, 10% by life circumstances and 40% by intentional activity (our thoughts, behaviours, choices). She says it’s best to target the 40% since that’s where we can have the greatest impact. And this is what I was interested in the most when it came to Denmark too.

When I was researching Denmark on the internet, I started noticing something…the descriptions I read of the Danes  had quite a lot of overlap with what Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky lists as some of the top ways of becoming happier. So I printed out Dr Lyubomirsky’s list and discussed it with Ambassador Basse.

Of course this is not scientific at all; just impressions from what I believe was an honest conversation. My guess seemed to be fairly accurate from what the Ambassador said. Ambassador Basse said that the Danish generally:

–        Avoid social comparison

–        Are kind.  About 43 per cent of Danes do volunteer work, such as helping out in cultural activities, social, health and school events.

–        Nurture social relationships. This is very important to the Danes. They entertain at home a lot too. Good friends are important to them.

The Danes take time to nurture relationships. (Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Ty Stange)

–        Especially at the workplace, stress prevention and coping is a big priority.

–        They are committed to authentic goals. There’ a lot of focusing on what someone sincerely wants to do in life instead of doing something that is expected of them by others.

–        There’s a big focus on taking care of one’s health, also by the employer.

Exercise and Sports are highly encouraged in Denmark. (Photo Credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com/; Photographer - Christian Alsing)

–        They have a word, “pyt” which kind of means “nevermind”. She said that may come closest to forgiveness (which Dr Lyubomirsky says is one key way of increasing happiness.)

–        They take time to savor life’s joys. They play sports and value play.

To see all of Dr Lyubomirsky’s 12 steps, please click here.

I asked Ambassador Basse where all this came from. She said:  firstly, it’s probably in their roots – they had co-ops in agriculture. Secondly, over the years different governments had made fairly friendly labour market policies.  Thirdly, the childhood is considered a period of life in its own right.

As a Government, Amabassador Basse said that they do know that happier people are more  productive – and this is good for the nation.

Absolutely! This is what I’ve been educating people about. There are business benefits to happiness at work. Happiness is good for the country. Research shows that happier people are healthier, have better relationships, resolve conflicts better, have better marriages, are more productive and higher performing. One study showed that happier doctors made the right diagnosis faster!

What was lovely was experiencing some of the happiness traits we had been talking about from Ambassador Basse itself. She was open to meeting me, had spent time reflecting on the questions I had posed her, had even asked her children about their thoughts on it. And she was kind enough to give me an article she thought would be helpful to me. She also displayed curiosity in understanding more about Singapore.

Huge gratitude to Ambassador Basse for her time and thoughts.

Related Resources

And The Happiest Place on Earth is…. (kindly shared by Ambassdaor Basse; she appreciated the humour with which it was written)

Copenhagen really is wonderful, for so many reasons

Sharmi Albrechtsen – writer who investigates happiness in Denmark.

Happiness is now on the UN agenda. Read “Defining a New Economic Paradigm”.

Steiner Education didn’t come up during our conversation. But I’ve heard many positive things about Steiner education and would like to list it as a resource.  In Singapore, we have the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. Also learn about Quaker education.

The Golden Rule – a wonderful picture book on the rule that unites all major faith traditions.


This interview was conducted in Singapore on 25 October 2012 by Vadivu Govind, Director of Joy Works, joyworks.sg. Joy Works specialises in enabling workplace happiness. Vadivu blogs at happiness.sg. She can be contacted at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.



Part of conversation with a taxi driver today –
driver: my life is very hard. very hard.
me: oh…what keeps you going?
driver: my family. i have to for my family. but some people cannot make it. they jump down or get divorced, because they don’t have enough money.
me: ohdear…do you know people who have done this?
driver: divorce got lah. some get divorced and be alone at home…
me: what did you do before driving a taxi?
driver: engineer for 13 years.
me: how long have you been driving?
driver: 5 years.
me: what happened?
driver:  companies started moving to china. cheaper there.
me: tried getting back to engineering?
driver: yes but am too old now. couldn’t get anything. i have to work for my children.
me: how are your children doing in school?
driver: ok lah. not so good. not so bad…. i feel warm…
me: ? warm?
driver: my heart is warm. (he had his hand over his heart) because you ask me questions like this…and talk to me like this
me: oh, thank you so much for saying that…
As i left the taxi, I could actually feel warmth in my chest. We had made a heart to heart connection and he actually expressed that openly to me. What a difference that made to us both…. a brief moment of real connection…there are so many of these waiting to happen around us….reach out…..

Matthieu Ricard – For Leaders

Matthieu Ricard is a monk, photographer and best-selling author of “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” and “Why Meditate?” among other books. He is the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He is dubbed as the happiest person in the world by popular media but do read about how he feels about this on his blog

In this part of the interview I did with him on 13 September 2012 in Singapore, I assumed the role of a wealthy leader and posed some thoughts such a leader may have to Ricard. Here is the other part of the interview. ~ Vadivu

There are different definitions of happiness. Could you describe what it feels like to be truly happy?

Inner peace. Inner peace comes with inner freedom. What is inner freedom? It’s not just to do what comes to your head. That would be being a slave of your thoughts. Inner freedom is to be free from constantly ruminating over the past or constantly anticipating the future with lots of grasping, hopes and fears, expectations and doubts. It is to be able to remain in the present moment without being disturbed by craving, anger, jealousy and so forth. So it is a state of freedom from such mental toxins. Hatred is toxic to happiness. Craving is toxic to happiness. Arrogance is toxic to happiness.

Contrary to what people might think, this is not a dull state. It is not that if you got rid of all those afflictive emotions , life becomes boring and colorless. Not at all. This is the most vivid, luminous, aware state of peace and out of that comes loving kindness and compassion.

In short, it is inner peace from disturbing thoughts linked with some understanding of reality (wisdom) and it is pervaded with love and compassion. All that together – that’s genuine happiness.

As you can see, it is very different from looking for an endless succession  of pleasurable experiences. Those are recipes for exhaustion. That’s what people try to do. Another one….another one…another one….then they collapse out of exhaustion. And also that doesn’t bring happiness.

I’m at that point of exhaustion…I have a very stressful and hectic lifestyle. What are some daily practices that you can recommend for me?

Even if you have a very hectic lifestyle, you probably find time to go to a very nice gym in the early morning and exert yourself on a bicycle or treadmill because you are convinced that it’s good for your health and that you will lose less hair, get rid of your tummy and look good and young.

Imagine that for 30 minutes a day you learn how to deal better with your mind and emotions and that this will change the quality of the 23 hours and thirty minutes left in your day.

You can become familiar with your own mind and learn through simple methods of mind-training how to distinguish between thoughts and emotions that  undermine your wellbeing and those that nurture it. You can learn how to cultivate inner joy and inner peace. This mind training will diminish your stress and bring you more serenity and above all will give you the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Because however powerful you might be, your control of the world is very limited, temporary and illusory…there are ups and downs in the stock market or you may lose your job. You think you are the boss and the next day, everybody throws you out so if you put all your hopes and fears on that and you think that if you don’t have that, you cannot be happy, it’s like hoping to win the lottery.

If you look at the inner conditions of your mind, no matter what, you can keep your serenity, strength of mind and confidence. Because it’s in your mind. Nobody can take that away from you. Nobody. So if you cultivate that, then you know it’s like a cat. If you throw a cat in the air, it will fall back on its four legs. You know that no matter what happens, you will have the inner resources to deal with that.

When you are feeling vulnerable or insecure, and the insecurity causes you to withdraw into yourself, you could become self-centred or arrogant. If you know that you have the resources to deal with the world, then you don’t have to be insecure. You don’t just depend on your image, what people think of you, your rank, your position as a CEO…With inner confidence, you are open to others because you’re not occupied with “me, me, me” all the time. Inner strength naturally opens you to kindness, benevolence, so then you’re ready for really constructive activity in the word and not just ceaselessly and mainly promoting self-interest.

My Thoughts. 

But you know, as a leader, my main responsibility is to bring profit to my shareholders, not to look at things like compassion or the happiness of my employees. That’s their personal matter.

That’s a recipe for making a hell of your whole company. Nobody would be happy. Some people would fear you. Some people would hate you.

Well, as long as they get the work done…

And then what? At the end of the day?

I met someone in Hong Kong some years ago…He said “Well, you know, when I started, I wanted to have a million US dollars, now I have five after fifteen years…and I wasted fifteen years of my life.”

[Nobel Laureate] Muhammad Yunus also said in the Davos Economic Forum that if the whole purpose of  your enterprise and life is to make profit, and is totally devoid of the human dimension, you’re drying up your life.

This is a recipe for sorrow, selfishness, and misery. And when things go wrong and your enterprise doesn’t do well financially, since there’s no human dimension, then everybody would run away.

However, if there is, in your enterprise, a sense of community, a sense of sharing human values, and if on top of that, you have a social component so that you dedicate some of your effort, resources, skills to benefit some sector of society, and the CEO and everyone is participating, then in rough times, your company will do better .

It’s like travelling somewhere on a bumpy road. If the destination is somewhere people really to go to, and there’s purpose and meaning beyond profit, they don’t mind the bumpy road. If it’s just to take you round and round for no reason, they don’t like bumpy roads.

My thoughts. 

How about my competitors? How can I show compassion to my competitors? Because if they do well, it means I can’t do well.

Healthy competition is an emulation to do well. First of all, there should be no competition within the enterprise. That’s a recipe for self-destruction. Competition between enterprises is healthy because it pushes you to bring out the best of yourself. So you can want to do something of quality and to always do better, but not at the cost of harassing your employees and not at the cost of doing dirty tricks.

Don’t think, “If I don’t do dirty tricks and if I don’t push too hard, I would be a loser.”

Because over time, relationships are based on trust. If everyone distrusts each other, again, we poison the situation and things become dysfunctional.

It’s like if you thought you were a good tennis player and you saw someone extraordinary. You could say, “Wow! I have so much more to learn! I can improve myself. This guy really knows what he’s doing”. So then you improve yourself but constantly trying to kick others in the leg…that’s in the end, a lose-lose situation.

There are some people in my life – very few of them – who have spoken the truth to be about my weaknesses. But it was very uncomfortable and I asked them to leave.

The kindest person is the one who brings to the surface your weaknesses and hidden faults because it gives you a wonderful opportunity to improve.

Let’s look at what a very kind teacher in sport or music would look like. The kindest teacher cares so much for you that he will point out every defect of your play so that you can improve it…If you really want to play the piano well, and you had a teacher who, no matter what you do, just says,  “That’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice”, then you’ll never progress. If praise is unjustified, you wouldn’t feel good about that because you know you don’t have those qualities. So maybe temporarily it flatters your narcissism. But ultimately it doesn’t feel comfortable.

This is provided the feedback is not given in a demeaning way to put you down and the person has a good intention. This is the best way to improve so you are missing a big opportunity by not accepting such truthful feedback.

My thoughts. 

I am afraid of death…I try not to think about it.

You should think about it but not in a morbid way and get depressed.

Imagine that you have one month to live. It’s not very nice but would you want to distract yourself  for the last month or make it the most extraordinary month of your life? You can spend time with your dear ones, enjoy looking at flowers, the sky, meditating…

Death is certain but the time it comes is uncertain. It is the best way to make sure that you fully appreciate every moment of life.

Sometimes you’re bored and just sitting there. Hey if that were the last day of your life, it wouldn’t be boring. Even 10 boring minutes would look so extraordinary….I can just look outside and think that this day is so precious instead of having time just go by, colourless and boring.

Thinking about your death gives extraordinary quality to every moment of your life.

How do I have a peaceful death?

Prepare yourself so that you have no regrets. Think now. The things that you do… like trying to kick off your competitors, and making one more million dollars. Is this going to bring you a peaceful death? Are you really going to be happy when you die?

Now imagine that you spend quality time with your family and think, “I have accumulated some wealth but I use it in such wonderful, compassionate ways. I’ve contributed to society. Then when the last moment comes, I can rejoice in that and think “Ah, that was well done!””

But if you just have this big bank account, no one sees a coffin going out with a coffer. ..you’re not going to take it with you for sure….

My thoughts. 

(On his blog, Matthieu writes: Recently, I met an elder person who was expressing her sadness that many of her friends where so attached to their money, even as death was coming near. She concluded: “What is the point? One has never seen a safe on a coffin. Thanks to him for giving me permission to publish these cartoons by Gabs here.)



Interview conducted by: Vadivu Govind, Director, Joy Works (joyworks.sg) on 13 Sept 2012, Poh Ming Tse Temple, Singapore. (Deep gratitude to Matthieu Ricard for the gift of his time.) 

See the other part of this interview.

If you’d like to re-publish this interview or excerpts of it, please write to me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.

Related: My Interview with Kit Miller, Director of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence

(This blog isn’t tied to any specific religion. It has a multi-faith approach and promotes inter-faith harmony.)