Healing Presence – Dr Dennis Choi

Dr Dennis Choi heals with his Presence. (Photo copyright: Mt Pleasant Vet Centre)


“We heal with our presence. In order to help others to heal, we need to bring our wholeness into the examination room with us: our strengths, our courage, and even our anger and fears and doubts…

Yes, we cure with our expertise, but we heal with our life experience and our attention. We heal most often with our presence, and perhaps the most common tool of healing is just listening…We listen just to know what is true for this person at this moment in time – to witness it and validate it – and accept it.”

~ Medical reformer, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen writing on how doctors can heal with their presence

Presence is hard to describe. I don’t mean loud presence. I mean a quieter, soulful and heartful Presence. You know it when it’s there. You know when you are transformed or healed by it. It is subtle yet profound. And it lingers with you long after the person left.

Before I share about this Presence that Dr Remen talks about, I want to share about its absence. I felt its absence when I went to the first vet on the day my late dog, Max suddenly lost use of his hind legs. I left feeling confused, distraught and afraid that the vet simply did not know what she was dealing with. She also didn’t seem connected to me and my emotions. That night was one of the worst nights of my and Max’s life. We were both in pain and helpless. And so when I brought Max to see another vet, I could appreciate him more.

Dr Dennis Choi of Mt Pleasant Vet Centre has the kind of Presence Dr Remen shares about.

He practices generous listening.  He allowed me to finish sentences. Sometimes there were no more words and he allowed a silence to emerge in the room. In a society where we try to fill up every gap in space and conversations because many find silence to be awkward, this stands out.

He answered questions patiently. When I asked him to check if the supplements I wanted to give Max were ok, he did, via email, even if that was not part of a billed consultation.

He handled Max with gentleness that made up for what cancer did to Max.  Once when Max lost control of his bowels and soiled Dr Choi’s hands, he didn’t flinch, and didn’t make us feel bad. You may say this is part of the work for people in his profession.  I don’t remember his words, I remember his tone.  He embraced the sh*tty moment in the most elegant, graceful and kind way possible.

Max with his wheelchair

Presence shows up in the eyes since the eyes are the windows to our soul. Dr Choi has kind eyes.

It’s hard to teach someone to look with kind eyes. It’s something that emerges from the person from the inside. There are all kinds of courses that teach helping professionals to communicate better. These are important. But we need more support for the inner life of the healing professional. It is more difficult work but it is more important work.

Some time after Max died, I left Dr Choi a note in his hospital. About a week later, I received a call. It was him. He spent about 15 minutes with me. Unhurried. He didn’t have to have this conversation. Max was gone.

One of the things I had shared with him in the note was that there were not many resources for people grieving over the death of their animals in Singapore. And he agreed, adding that not much is covered about this in vet studies as well.  He said that even if we are professionally trained (he was a vet and I was trained as a social worker), we are not immune from emotions such as grief. This was a moment of real connection and authenticity. It is the connection that comes from shared vulnerability that Dr Remen speaks of:

“I like the archetype of the Wounded Healer which symbolizes that two people in a healing relationship are peers, both wounded, and both with healing capacity. Just by being here, in these bodies, we are wounded, we are incomplete, if you will. But we also have the capacity for wholeness as part of our birthright. It comes out of our human nature. If you and I are participating in the healing process together, it is my woundedness that allows me to connect to you in your woundedness. I know what suffering is. I also know that you may feel separated from other other people by your suffering. You may feel lost, frightened, trapped. My woundedness allows me to find you and be with you in a way that is nonjudgemental. You are not the sick one or the weak one. We are here together, both capable of suffering, both capable of healing”. (Source: Healers on Healing which I highly recommend for those in healing profession.)

I have now learned why I value people like Dr Choi.  He values relationships in a society that seems to have less and less time for it. And he extends that to not just his animal patients but their caregivers too.

Dr Remen distinguishes healing from curing. Max couldn’t be cured but he was healed by his family and his vet. And I was healed by various things, include Dr Choi’s kindness.

Max had soulful and powerful Presence in my life. He gifted us with quiet grace, sensitivity and consideration.  His last vet gave Max and us the same gifts.



(This is simply a personal account of my experience. Please choose your veterinary professional based on what is important to you. Thank you.)

Dr Rachel Remen’s is a healer of the healthcare system. For articles by her, visit her website. 

On Leadership by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

I have looked up to Aung San Suu Kyi for her nonviolent approach to change for many years. In her speech at Singapore Management University, she shares the mindset of a leader. Although she doesn’t use the term “servant leadership”, what she says is very much the essence of servant leadership to me. I have, made in  bold, specific lines that capture servant leadership.


Here are excerpts of her speech, which can be watched on youtube.

Leadership must begin with commitment; with conviction.

This, in the end, is what I think leadership is about. You should be able to fulfil the need of the people who are willing to be led by you. They are willing to be led by you because you fulfil their need for hope, their need to believe in themselves. If you cannot make those people you are trying to lead believe in themselves, you cannot really be a leader. So to make people believe in themselves, you’ve got to respect them. You’ve got to truly value them.


That is what leadership is about…making it possible for people to work together…


…What we are talking about are leaders, not commanders. Leaders lead. Commanders command. And they expect their commands to be obeyed, whether or not they are reasonable. Now leadership means convincing those whom you aspire to lead that the way you have chosen is the right one. It has to be a choice. They have to choose to follow you. That is what leadership is about. With a commander, there’s no choice. You either follow or else.

…Leadership entails vision. Otherwise where are you leading people to? If you don’t know where you want to go to, you have no right to ask people to go along with you. So that is what vision is; knowing where it is you want to go and and to be able to explain this to those whom you aspire to lead. Why you want to go where you want to get to in a particular way. It’s not just getting to a goal but how you get to a goal that is decisive; that is important. And you got to decide: Are you going to take more time to make sure that the way is smoother or do you want to put an emphasis on speedy achievement?  And why? You have to balance…

…Stewardship is a kind of leadership we should aspire to in a democracy; not commanders but stewards who know that they have given the responsibility for a particular society; for a particular people; for a particular nation for a set period of time…It’s stewardship to guide this people, society, the nation during the time you have been given in the best possible way; in the most civilised way possible in the broad sense of the word, “civilisation”; to make that society more civilised; more human; to retain the values that are best for human society.

…Everywhere I go nowadays, people talk about economics all the time and this is important of course because we are physical beings and we need to be physically well-off. So our material situation is very important. But I would like to say, also, that we have to think of our spiritual situation. Now of course people think talk of EQ (emotional quotient) as well as IQ but I think we also have to think about the spiritual (SQ), which is not quite the same as emotional. I think the spiritual is reaching out to somewhere higher than you’ve been. And I think this is what leadership is about; reaching out to somewhere higher…reaching out together and reaching out as a responsibility; as a steward and not as somebody who will decide what the destiny of people who follow them are going to be.

We all decide our destiny together. We decide, as a nation; as a society where we wish to go to. But sometimes because there are so many of us, we can’t come to a single decision. And then it is up to those who aspire to be leaders to unite all the diversity that exists in any healthy, normal society into a unity of purpose; a unit of purpose that will get us to a place that is better and higher than where we have been before.

So that, simply, to me, is the mindset of leadership; the determination to serve, not to lead. And it’s a determination and commitment to serve that decides who is a real leader, not the desire to be a leader itself.                  


I deeply appreciate that she speaks of the spiritual. It is the piece we need to connect to more, and urgently.

If you’re interested to bring servant leadership to your institution, please contact me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.


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.


Sincerity important in safeguarding welfare of workers

Here’s my letter published today. If you connect with the letter, could you please use it as a stimulus for discussion at your workplace/place of worship/school/home etc? How could you use your own position to help workers?

The Straits Times Forum Online, 14 Dec 2012
Sincerity important in safeguarding welfare of workers

LAWS and guidelines are important to ensure proper worker welfare (“Making it work”; Saturday) but they are not enough.

What we do when nobody is watching is an indication of who we truly are. People often get away with not following laws and guidelines.

Migrant workers have told me that safety violations are sometimes not reported. And when they raise safety concerns with their employers, they are sometimes told: “If you’re not happy, go back to your country!”

So, the cultivation of integrity and compassion is key.

All major faiths cherish compassion. Their golden rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. Faith-based groups could specifically share with their worshippers the importance of practising compassion and integrity in the workplace. They could teach followers how to be role models and share best practices.

Those in the corporate social responsibility circles can encourage members to treat their workers well.

This would be more in keeping with the true spirit of being a good corporate citizen than making donations to charities while not paying enough attention to one’s employees.

A lot of research shows that better employee well-being leads to better business outcomes. Businesses need to be made aware of this.

Parents can also be role models for their children. And students can be taught in school how to communicate with low-income workers, such as making eye contact with them and greeting them with a smile.

If adults treat these workers with dignity and respect, the children may do that, too, and grow up to become more humane employers.

Let us remember our limited time on earth.

At the end of our lives, what matters is our character. How compassionate were we? Did we practise integrity? What legacy are we leaving in the hearts of people who knew us, including our employees? If we have treated people well, we would be proud of ourselves when we die, and we would have lived happier lives.

Vadivu Govind (Ms)

Listening to Stories

“Now I become myself. It has taken time, many years and places” ~ May Sarton.

I was once an impatient person with little time for stories. Now I think stories are what make us human. And in this increasingly disconnected world, our stories

 have the power to Re-Connect us again.If you’d like to be a witness to someone’s story, here are some questions you could ask.
http://storycorps.org/record-your-story/question-generator/list/I tend to reflect back strengths I see in them.

What you need: Patience. A love for people’s stories. An ability to show interest when they are speaking. An ability to reflect back the beauty you see.

Some parts of someone’s life may bring up difficult emotion so tread carefully if you don’t feel confident of handling that.

(Pictured here: A page from Anna Boo’s folder.)

Related: Anna’s Story

End of Year Reflection Questions


We grow when we take time to pause and reflect. We can then continue doing what has been working, stop what hasn’t and start what would be best for us.

Here’s a reflection activity you can do with loved ones and/or colleagues…you can answer the questions through photos, artwork, writing or verbally sharing with each other…If you cannot recall things, use your diary/planner to jog your memory as I am doing.

As you look back at the year, which memory shines most brightly?

What were the ten best things you did with your time?

What were three things you would have done differently? Where could you get support to improve? How much have you forgiven yourself? (Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes.)
What makes sense now that didn’t when it happened?

Which quality/qualities did you develop the most this year?
What was your greatest life lesson this year?
What was your greatest harvest this year?
Who positively impacted your life? Have you appreciated them in a way that’s meaningful to them?
If you let go of something or someone, what did you gain? Or is it a loss you’d like to reverse?
What was the best idea you had that you didn’t have enough time to put into action this year?
Given that there is one more month to the year, what remains for closure/healing/revealing/paying more attention to this year, so you feel at peace and can start the year anew?I wish you fruitful reflections! :)
This is also a good time to get honest feedback from others on yourself.
At the workplace, employees and leaders  can do a 360-feedback exercise to find out how they are experienced by others. If you want more info on a 360 survey, email me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.

The Person Behind a Life-Changing Photo

We all came into journalism with the hope that we can reach out to, and touch people, even if it's just one person. ~ Stephanie Yeow, Picture Editor, The Straits Times


Dear Friends,

Today, happiness.sg turns two years old!  Thank you so much for all your support! And for letting me know when something I shared spoke to you – both here and on facebook.

If you read the “Me” page of my blog, you’ll know that this blog is in memory of four migrant workers who were killed in a lorry accident in 2009. And I have a special story about this today.

In 2009, a photo in The Straits Times changed my life. It was a photo of a man grieving because his relative had died in a lorry accident in Singapore. I had just returned to Singapore after a few years away and I was looking for a job overseas at that time. I wanted a one-way ticket out of Singapore.

The photo I saw changed that. It was like a defribulator to my heart.  I thought I would do one “last project” to help migrant workers before leaving. That project evolved…and today it has become a long-term commitment to helping all in Singapore (not just migrant workers) become happier – through Joy Works and happiness.sg. More on that here: http://www.happiness.sg/me/

When I recently attended the Straits Times Forum Writers Forum, they introduced Stephanie Yeow, the Picture Editor. I remembered the name! It was the photographer who had taken the photo of the man grieving! I looked for her later but she had left. So I dropped her and Warren fernandez, the Editor of ST a note the next day. Here are snippets of it:

In response, I got a wonderful email from Stephanie:


I really appreciated how Stephanie had written this email from her heart.

So I dropped by Straits Times recently and met up with her. I’m sure she must have been busy, being the Picture Editor. But she took time to take me on a tour. And then we had an un-rushed chat. I asked her how she selects pictures, how she got into this work, about her staff etc. She answered patiently and I enjoyed and appreciated the conversation.

She shared that her staff come into this work wanting to make a difference. I understood the importance of this. And I said that may be hard for them to know since people don’t often give feedback on their work. She agreed.

I had sometimes thought of contacting Stephanie over the past three years but never did. We just procrastinate on some important things! When I got back from the Forum Writers’ Dialogue, I reminded myself that I could die at any time so I should express gratitude NOW. That made me write the email. And I’m SOOO glad I finally did.

It does take time to express appreciation and give positive feedback to people but the rewards are very high. Both Stephanie and I were enriched by this exchange. And I’m so glad my email was shared with the ST staff by Warren Fernandez. One other staff member contacted me after seeing my email and we also enjoyed a cup of tea together.

So reach out. Do the thing that you’ve been wanting to do but postponing because you think you have all the time in the world to do it. You don’t. Thank someone who has had a positive impact on your life, and may not even know how much of an impact they have had. It may be very meaningful for them to hear that!

Thank you, Stephanie, for capturing emotion so powerfully in that photo. It was a heart-opening photo.  If more of us put into our work what you did in that moment you captured that photo, we would enjoy our work more, and make  contributions that help open each other’s hearts. It would be a different world…..

You are a living testament to the magic that we unleash into the world when we view our work as a Calling.