individual mindset

Corporate Head Turned Meditation Champion
– Peter Ng Kok Song

HappyHappy  •  Aug 2019

Peter Ng Kok Song served as Group Chief Investment Officer of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) from 2007 till his retirement on 1 Feb 2013, after a 42‐year career there.

Since then, he has remained active as member of the board of several public and private companies. He is also the National Coordinator of The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) in Singapore.

In May 2019, DP Architects invited Kok Song to lead one of its daily morning meditation sessions at the office, during which he fielded questions on meditation from DP staff followed by an interview with HappyHappy.

The well-known teacher in meditation shared many insights with us including useful meditation tips, the importance of discipline in a meditative practice and teaching meditation to young children to give them a head start in life.

During the interview we also discovered in Kok Song a man passionate about his calling to share the transformative secrets of meditation with those seeking a new, deeper dimension in life. It is as if his long and illustrious career as a distinguished civil servant has imprinted his DNA with the ethos of service to society – from helming Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund to now promoting mental wellness and improving the quality of lives through the practice of meditation.

In this interview, Kok Song shared his thoughts and insights on meditation. This is what he had to say:

Meditation In A Nutshell

Meditation is essentially about learning to pay attention. During meditation we lay aside our thoughts, our desires, our plans, our worries. So that we can go into a deeper place within ourselves where we can find peace. Where we can penetrate to the level of the spirit within us.

It’s easier said than done. First, we have to deal with the surface distractions that are constantly challenging us. We need to bring our body and our mind to stillness, to silence.

So the first step is to learn how to sit still during the time of meditation. This physical stillness is very important to prepare ourselves for the inner stillness, the mental stillness.

The Six Steps For Physical Stillness

So it is good to take a few moments to sit properly for the meditation so that we are alert and relaxed at the same time.

The first thing is to learn to sit with your back straight, your spine upright. In order to do that you have to locate the centre of gravity of the human body, which is the front edge of your buttock bones.

So rest the frame of your body on the front edge of your buttock bones so that your back is automatically propped up in an upright position. So whether you are on the chair or on the floor, sit upright by resting the frame of your body on the front edge of your buttock bones.

The second thing is to rest your feet on the floor. So that you are nicely anchored.

Your hands could be on your knees, on your lap. Or, if you like, you can put one palm on top of the other.

The next thing is to relax the muscles of your face. Reduce any tension in your face. Close your eyes lightly – so that you are not distracted by those around you.

The final preparation is to be aware of your breathing. Your breath is constantly flowing in and out. We don’t pay attention to that normally.

So before meditation, just take a few moments to be aware of our breath coming in and going out. You will notice that when you pay attention to your breathing, your distracted mind quietens down.

So these are the six steps that you can take, as a check list, to come to this physical stillness. This is a very good preparation for meditation.

Maranatha – The Universal Mantra

The next step is to bring the mind to stillness. In order to do that, we need a method.

And the method that we teach is to focus the mind on the mantra, on this word that we repeat continuously throughout the ten minutes of our meditation.

Because by focusing the mind on this one word, it enables the mind to let go of all the other distracting thoughts, whatever they may be. So the secret is to recite the mantra faithfully throughout the meditation.

The mantra that we recommend to you is a universal mantra, the word “maranatha”.

Maranatha means “Come, Lord.”

It is a sacred word in Christianity. But “Lord” can also be understood in universal terms, not exclusively in Christian terms.

The purpose of the mantra is not for us to think about the meaning but simply to repeat it, and let the faithful repetition of the mantra lead us to a deeper stillness of mind.

So you start off by repeating this mantra in four equally-stressed syllables: ma-ra-na-tha

Say it quietly within you, without moving your lips. And say it continuously.

During meditation, as soon as you find that you are distracted by some other thought, don’t be discouraged, just drop the distracting thought, and return humbly to saying the mantra.

Very importantly, listen to the sound of the mantra, as you sound it within you, so that you become more absorbed in the mantra.

Scientific Evidence And The Ancient Practice Of Meditation

There is a Professor from Yale University, Laurie Santos, who gave a talk on Psychology and the Good Life. In her talk, she spoke about the miserable lives of Yale students, how overwhelmed they are, how hopeless they sometimes feel, how depressed they are, and how little sleep they get.

She also gave seven principles for how to live a happier life. One of the things she recommended was to make time. Make time. Make time for sleep. Make time to be in the present moment through some form of practice of mindfulness, or meditation.

There was another talk by another professor – Daniel Pink – who spoke on the science of perfect timing. His proposition was that our human body has its own timing for various things. And he also prescribed ways of maintaining your mental resilience throughout the day, for example by taking twelve-minute breaks.

And then there is another professor who spoke on how much of human living and executive life is done unconsciously. You’re not really paying attention to what you are doing. Your mind is on something else, and you can’t concentrate. Basically the lack of attention.

Now these are all professors, well and good, they give wonderful talks. But none of them, to my disappointment, suggest a practical method for how to meditate. And this is because, in universities, they put so much emphasis on evidence. They want proof that this works.

But now there is a whole body of evidence to support meditation. And with the kind of rigour that academics demand. So academics are gradually finding out from scientific research what the wise men and women of old have known for thousands of years.

Meditation at DP Architects

So I say this because what you have here at DP – beginning with the seminar conducted by Father Laurence two and a half years ago, and the daily meditation practice – is a precious gift.

It’s a gift to help you deal with all the challenges in life and have a more sustainable career.

Because if you don’t have something like meditation to help you maintain your resilience and state of balance every day, you run a big risk of burning out. And of feeling unhappy.

Daily Discipline

The silence is there. Deep within us. In spiritual language, it is the silence from which everything emerges in the world.

Many of us have not learnt how to access that silence. Why? Because our minds are noisy. This noisiness of the mind is caused by distractions, worries, plans, desires. And you give attention to them! You are not creating enough room for the silence to emerge within you.

So meditation is about learning how to quieten the noisy mind. And in order to tap into this silence, you need to practise it as a daily discipline.

You can’t say, well, when I need it, I will go there, to this stillness inside me.

That’s not how it works. You have to practise. So that when you do need to access the stillness, you can do it, it is there. So discipline is very important.

Through the discipline of meditation, you transform your life. And in transforming your life, you transform the life of the organisation. This is important for any business leader.

The Recommended Age To Start Meditating

“But that memory of meditation
will stay with them for life.
And at some point,
they will come back to it again.”

The earliest time is when the baby is in the womb. If the mother meditates during pregnancy, then the calmness passes on to the baby.

And when the child is growing up, the earlier the better. You’ll be amazed at how easily children take to meditation compared to adults. Why? Because their minds are less distracted. You tell them, just sit now, just follow your breath and say the mantra for ten minutes. They will do it.

Whereas for adults, we say it’s difficult, because our minds are so distracted.

So, the earlier the better.

And nowadays, especially, in this technology-driven world, with all kinds of gadgets and social media, our attention span is so limited. Technology affects all of us, and children too. So I feel that the sooner we can introduce meditation to children the better.

For one thing, it will give them a way of coping with the stress they are feeling.

And secondly, you are teaching them a way of paying attention. Because when they learn to pay attention, they will not be easily distracted. Naturally their studies will improve.

And then when they become adults, probably they may not be able to continue to meditate because they will become busy. But that memory of meditation will stay with them for life. And at some point, they will come back to it again.

Meditation In Schools

We teach meditation in many schools in the UK, Australia, US and increasingly in many other countries.

In Singapore we teach meditation in some Catholic schools. Simple things like during school assembly in the morning, the children gather, sit on the floor, and then do two minutes of meditation. The whole school falls silent during those two minutes. Some teachers would also introduce a period of meditation in class.

These are very important ways in which we can bring a greater measure of peace into the lives of our children. Given the problems we have in the world, we have to prepare the young generation for future challenges.

So I think meditation for our children is vital.

The Ministry of Education has been looking into this for years. But they don’t have the courage to implement it. They say they have to do all kinds of studies and go on overseas missions to learn about mindfulness in schools. But no policy change has come as yet.

Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew And His Thoughts On Meditation In Schools

“And when teachers see meditation
as being valuable
in their own personal lives,
they will say, yes
now I can share this with my students.”

If you go to the YouTube video of the late Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew talking about meditation, there’s a point in the video where Father Laurence asked him whether he thought it would be a good idea to introduce meditation to children in schools.

Mr Lee said, the key factor is the teacher. The teachers themselves must be convinced of the value of meditation. They must practise it, so that they can share it better with the students.

Yes, so now you’ve got to get down to the level….how do you create the incentives?

It’s important for the Ministry of Education to say, yes this is good. But we cannot wait for the Ministry to send you a circular on this.

The principal must be the one to say, yes this is something that we want to build into our system because it is good for our children. We want to encourage our teachers to attend a workshop by a meditation practitioner so that they can see the value of meditation.

Deal with that first.

And when teachers see meditation as being valuable in their own personal lives, they will say, yes now I can share this with my students.

I think that is the right way to proceed. It might take another two or three more years but this will help.

When I spoke to Mr Lee Kuan Yew several years ago, he said it might be difficult to implement meditation in all the schools. But we can start by introducing meditation in one or two schools, Mr Lee said, and when all the reports show that children become less stressed, then meditation will catch on.

So you see, we have got to do it the other way round. Start with a few schools. And the breakthrough will come when parents start to say, these other schools are doing it, well, why aren’t we doing it too? We want our children to be less stressed too. We want to find ways to help our children be happier. This will be the breakthrough.

And you know, we’re not even re-inventing the wheel. Meditation is a practice from more than 2,000 years ago.

Happiness vs Success

People think that if you’re successful, you’ll be happy.

Well, I think we’re too concerned about success, and in the process of being too successful, we stop being happy.

Which is more important? To be happy? Or to be successful?

My view is that if you can be happy, you will be successful. You will be able to sustain your life and career over time. Some people think it’s a waste of time to meditate. But the materialistic mindset has captured too many people. You’re competing to get your kids into the best schools but then the children are stressed and unhappy.

I don’t want my grandchildren to be unhappy. I have six grandkids. As a grandparent, I’m telling my two older children to be careful and not let their children be too stressed.

Meditation In The Corporate World

When I was at the GIC – I retired six years ago – my staff knew that I meditated. But I didn’t promote meditation at the GIC. Because I didn’t want people to say that they wanted to learn meditation because the boss practised meditation. That is promotion. I didn’t want that.

So anyone in GIC who was interested in meditation would say: Kok Song, you practise meditation, can you tell us more about it? Only then would I say, since you’re interested in meditation I’ll talk to you about it.

I also didn’t want to form a meditation group at the GIC. So I would tell people that if they were interested in meditation and if they don’t mind being part of a Christian meditation group, come to my church. So I was very careful.

Organisations like DP Architects that offer meditation to their staff – it shows a concern for the wellness of their staff, it sends a signal that you would like them to take time off during the day for quiet time.

Some organisations even create a meditation room for staff to relax in and recharge.

Then there is my friend Ray Dalio who runs the biggest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates. Ray is a disciple of transcendental meditation but he’s very open to other ways of meditating. So he tells his employees: if you sign up for a course on meditation or mindfulness or transcendental meditation (TM), you pay half, we’ll pay the other half.

These are ways that a company can a signal to their staff that they believe meditation is good for them, and that they are willing to help them in this journey.

So in organisations, the key factor of success is the CEO who sets the example.

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is the secular practice of meditation. Mindfulness as some of you may know was extracted from Buddhism. But in order to present it to a popular audience in the United States, they left out the religion and they say you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise mindfulness. That appeals to people who are not interested in institutionalised religion.

Same for TM. That was extracted from Hinduism. Similarly they took religion out of it and presented it as a practice for coming into the present moment.

So I think mindfulness and TM have enabled many people especially in the west, to find a greater measure of peace in their lives.

But mindfulness does not go far enough. It does not go deep enough. It does not have the attributes of a serious discipline. Why do I say that?

In order to come to a greater sense of meaning, purpose and joy in life, you first need to become self-aware. But after that, you have to transcend yourself. So we talk now of the idea of self-transcendence. Another word for self-transcendence is love.

So mindfulness takes you to the level of self-awareness but it does not challenge you to go to the next level of self-transcendence. Which is the movement from self-centredness to other-centredness.

In meditation, by saying the mantra, you take the attention off yourself, you leave your plans, desires all behind and humbly say the mantra. And in the process, you become aware of yourself and then you transcend yourself. So there is a big difference. People who practise mindfulness, that is a good thing. But strive for better. Which is self-transcendence.

The Meditation Movement In Singapore

For example, just this year – 2019 – we produced this book “Good Work”. That is the transcript of the proceedings of the four meditation sessions that Father Laurence conducted at DP Architects.

What a powerful effect this book has had on people who have read it. The book has helped them come to a deeper understanding of meditation. They see how important it is for personal transformation and organisational development.

After the book launch, I was invited by Frasers Property to speak to their senior executives. The CEO was there. He’s a Thai Buddhist. He spoke about his personal experience of meditation. He was ordained as a monk twice. That is the Thai Buddhist culture. He was delighted to hear about meditation being presented to executives in a modern way, in the way that I am presenting it. So now they want me to speak to a bigger group of mid-level executives.

And then, in August this year, through Angeline’s introduction, Father Laurence will be giving a talk on meditation to the management and staff at Far East Organization.

So you see, all these are very recent. People are beginning to talk more and more about meditation. I’ve been practising meditation for 30 years. In a way, you can say we’ve been laying the foundation. It takes a while.

The big breakthrough was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The fact that Mr Lee was prepared to speak about it, why he was very open to learning it from a Christian monk, and how he saw the value of meditation in his own personal life. That was very powerful.

Finding Time To Meditate

“…you got to get serious,
you got to make time for meditation”

At the end of the day, the most difficult part is to have the discipline to meditate everyday. Because people will say, oh this is wonderful, I like to meditate, but I have no time. That is the problem. No time. No time.

Well, on occasions like these I just share with them my own personal experience.

I explain to them how I gradually developed discipline. When I started meditation more than 30 years ago, I was a mid-level executive at the GIC. Climbing the corporate ladder.

But by the grace of God, my wife and I were suddenly awakened to our search for a deeper meaning in life. Life is not just about making money, buying a car, buying a house and all that – that’s not going to make you happy. There was something lacking.

So we went searching for meditation as a way of taking us deeper in our lives. And then I found my teacher, Father Laurence Freeman. My wife and I read his first book, The Light Within. So we started meditating even before we met Father Laurence.

But then, having learned how to meditate, the next question was how to develop the discipline. As I discovered, it was not easy….no time, very busy, you know. Work, social activities, my family, my sporting activities, television, all sorts of things. No time.

Then I said to myself, you got to get serious, you got to make time for meditation.

So I examined my daily routine.

And I found out that there were many things that I was wasting my time on. Watching too much television. Nowadays it’s surfing the internet. Too many social activities. Addictions. In my case, it was playing mahjong.

Or even sports, my recreation. I used to play six hours of golf frequently. I said, no no no, this is wasting time. So I cut back. Instead of playing eighteen holes, I play nine holes. So two hours, instead of five or six hours. After nine holes, I tell my friends, thank you all, I’m going home.

So I looked into my life and saw that I was wasting time on unimportant things, trivial things. I knew meditation was, and still is, very important to me. So I made time for it. I had to prioritise my schedule. What were the things I wanted to spend time on, and what were the things I didn’t want to spend time on.

So that was what I told my people: look into your life. If it is not satisfactory, you have to change direction.

The good thing is that when CEOs like Angelene find time to meditate, that sends a powerful message. If the busiest people find time to meditate, the less busy people cannot find the time? It’s a matter of setting your priorities.

Meditation Is Not A Narcissistic Practice

Some people also have this misguided idea that you must be a perfect meditator, you must sit in a lotus position like a Buddha, that you must be so blissful all the time. That is not the reality.

The reality is that you would be challenged by distractions during your meditation.

Sometimes you will find that your meditation on a certain day is not going well. That’s OK. Abandon all these matrices.

The breakthrough will come when you say, I don’t have to be a champion Olympic meditator to experience the value of meditation. Even if you meditate at only 30% optimally, it will change your life.

So we have to approach meditation in the right way. Don’t get caught up in this as a narcissistic practice. You have to rise above that.

At the heart of it all, meditation is a spiritual practice.

What Does Happiness Mean To You?

“You become other-centred,
you are focused on your people.
That is responsible leadership.”

Happiness is about expanding yourself. Of being concerned for others, like your spouse, loved ones. And in the process of doing that, you are happy.

This is where a meditative practice is important. Meditation helps you to be aware of yourself. To be aware of the reality of things. To see yourself in relationships with other people, and the world. To discover that you are part of a bigger picture. Take “you” out of yourself. Stop thinking about yourself. Think more of others.

If you’re the CEO of an organization, you can operate as though you are the most powerful person. You make decisions that impact everybody.

But, at the same time, as the leader, you have a responsibility for the organisation. And you have a responsibility for your people. When you lead beyond your ego, you are not enslaved by your ego. You become other-centred, you are focused on your people. That is responsible leadership. And that is when leadership becomes inspiring.

So happiness is the ability to go beyond yourself. It liberates you.

Kok Song’s Message To HappyHappy:

Thank you for showing interest in this. Because you have a role to play to bring to public awareness something which I believe in very strongly is of great value to society, based on my own experience. You’re making a contribution by bringing this to public awareness.

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