Writer: Erin Lee
Almost every mall I go to in Singapore during the Chinese New Year period showcases a rather dramatic display of fortune telling.
Huge red banners attempt to forecast how the next 12 months would go for people born in the year of the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, etc.
I would find myself steering towards these banners with curiosity and joining the crowd in finding out how the brand new year might pan out.
Each zodiac animal sign features a section that rates how various aspects of our life would turn out to be. At one mall, I saw that my sign - the Pig - scored four out of five stars in Wealth and Career. Upon turning my attention inward, I felt my heart lifted a little with happiness and relief.
In Love, I saw that I scored three out of five stars. And in Health, only two.
Immediately, my heart sank in subtle disappointment. Oh man, I thought. Is something bad going to happen to me? Am I going to fall very sick this year?
And then my practice of mindfulness would "kick in", prompting me to shift out of the fearful storytelling mind and take in the larger perspective of my experience.
I became aware that numerous people like me were crowding around the banners, checking their fortunes with interest and hope. I wondered if they would do this at every mall they visited, relying on the predictions of someone they didn't know to get a sense of how the future would be, low-key rejoicing when they got four or five stars, and duly fretting when they got a lower score on the board.
I overheard a lady lament to her partner while pointing to her board, "See! I told you this year will not be a good year for me!" She bowed her head down in defeat and walked away, with her partner in tow.
Out of curiosity I looked at what was written on her board, and a part of it read something like this:
Prepare yourself for experiencing more lows than highs this year. The new year will bring challenges to existing relationships, and partners must try to resolve issues with mutual efforts. Work will get in the way of health, and paying more attention to sleep and diet will prevent existing health issues from deteriorating. Expect financial fluctuations in the first half of the year, and stay away from unnecessary expenses or investments.
When we read the predictions in detail, we can tell that these new year forecasts were produced with good intentions - to ready us for the potential lows of life, and encourage us to remain optimistic of potential highs.
Fear and Hope
I remember sitting in front of the TV as a child on the eve of every Chinese New Year, eagerly awaiting my zodiac prediction to be announced by an appointed "Master". There was a sense of thrill from getting a glimpse into the future, even when we were advised by the adults to take what we heard with a big pinch of salt.
Even when we have become fully grown adults with a more developed capacity for critical reasoning, there still resides in us a perpetual fear of unpredictability, and correspondingly a futile hope for certainty.
We hope there won't be danger lurking; we hope we won't have to meet with difficulties ever again; we hope for a life absent of worries and hardship.
More specifically, we want life to be smooth-sailing, and even flourishing. Nothing wrong with that.
During Chinese New Year home visits and gatherings, we greet one another with pretty lofty wishes, such as:
万事如意 wàn shì rú yì
(May everything go well for you)
心想事成 xīn xiǎng shì chéng
(May all that you wish for come true)
身体健康 shēn tǐ jiàn kāng
(May you enjoy good health)
恭喜发财 gōng xǐ fā cái
(May you prosper in wealth)
财源广进 cái yuán guǎng jìn
(May wealth and treasures fill your home)
学业进步 xué yè jìn bù
(May you progress in your studies)
升官发财 shēng guān fā cái
(May you get promoted to a higher position and become richer)
We even yell out these wishes during lou hei, a fun New Year tradition where we gather around a Chinese salad dish and use chopsticks to toss the food high up in the air. We believe that the higher we tossed the food and the louder we yelled, the more likely our wishes for prosperity would come true.
The uncertainty of life tends to invoke feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Fear of the future is more often than not a source of the underlying existential anxiety that plagues our health and wellbeing these days.
So perhaps predicting our future via fortune telling appeals to an innate longing for some stability and control of our own life.
"Knowing" how the future will turn out offers us the emotional comfort and assurance we need to keep moving forward in life, even if somewhere at the intellectual level we suspect such forecasting to be a complete sham.
The thing is, many of us don't realise that we need not rely on someone else to predict our future. We can do so ourselves.
Through the Lens of Mindfulness
The past years of practicing mindfulness have given me a helpful alternative to addressing my fear of the future.
Several wise teachers have taught me with conviction that mindfulness practitioners do not need to have their fortunes told. And the premise of their teaching is sensible and can be immensely empowering.
No need to fret about the future, the teachers would say. What really matters is how you take care of the present.
These wise words should not be taken at face value, and deserves a little unpacking.
Living in the present does not mean enjoying life to the fullest without a care in the world. It means looking deeply into how we are living from day to day, and through investigation and reflection understanding how we have come to be where we are.
We begin with acknowledging the basic principle of causality, and start seeing the dance of cause and effect along the timeline of our past, present, and future.
Why is my neck hurting all the time? Because I have been spending more than ten hours a day immersed in using my phone and with my head continuously bowed down to the screen. Past and present. Cause and effect.
Would I be having this problem right now if I hadn't used the phone so much, or if I had been more mindful of my posture? Most likely not. Past and present. Cause and effect.
If I continue to use the phone this way, will this neck issue change? Well, it most likely will not get any better, and might even become much worse. Present and future. Cause and effect.
We could try and see cause and effect along a more stretched out timeline:
Why am I feeling so angry towards my family? Because I have been holding on to resentment every day over the past thirty years. What will happen if I keep holding on to that resentment? My mental health will continue to suffer greatly, and I might fall very sick.
There is therefore no need to wonder and worry too much about the number of stars we will score in Health in the new year.
We can very clearly foresee the highest possible outcome based on investigating the here and now.
And what if we don't like the highest possible outcome? Rather than dreading the impending doom, we can do something different or new right here, right now.
Because the present shapes the future. Cause and effect.
When we sit and meditate, we learn to be more precise and even scrupulous with this investigation and inquiry into the timeline of our experience - literally from moment to moment. For instance, allowing ourselves to get consumed by a self-destructive thought in this very moment influences our state of mind in the next moment, and the next one, and the next one...
When we pay attention to ourselves this way, we begin to see that much of what we are experiencing in the present is largely the result of how we had chosen to live in the past, and much of how our future pans out depends on how we are choosing to live in the present.
With this insight, it becomes quite clear to us that we may not be as helpless or powerless as we assume we are. We have choice. And the capacity to make choices needs to be undertaken in the present moment.
Acceptance and Action
You might be thinking that life must be more complex than just taking an action and enjoying its corresponding outcome. It can't be that simplistic and straightforward. And you are right.
It is a fact that positive thoughts will lead to a more positive state of mind; healthy habits will lead to a healthier body; kind words and behaviours will lead to better connections and relationships.
But what if life throws its curveballs at us, even when we are "doing the right thing" and making good choices?
For instance, we watch our diet but still suffer from inherited high cholesterol; we work hard and produce great results, but someone less deserving of a reward gets the promotion instead; we tend to our partner's needs with care and they still choose to leave. This can be disheartening and make taking ownership of our own life feel effortful and even pointless.
My mindfulness practice reminds me to see things as they are, and this means that in understanding the laws of cause and effect, I also practice accepting the conditions that are not within my control, and learn to maximise the sphere of influence and impact I have on my own life.
Not everything will go the way I want all the time, even when I set out to make things happen. But I do know that the actions I take now will certainly play a pivotal role in how things develop.
If I don't take action, nothing will happen. But if I do, I am proactively shaping my own future.
So from this approach, predicting our future can also be really simple. Fortune telling becomes an empowering endeavour - one that holds space for uncertainties and unpredictability, and at the same time gives us confidence of our own ability to take wiser actions for a better life.
Today I tend to approach fortune telling from a place of fun and playfulness, and also with a more acute awareness of the deep-seated fears and desires within me.
When life feels demanding or seems to be going downhill, and I find myself instinctively reaching towards external sources for direction, I come back to my mindfulness practice as a reminder of the fortitude and wisdom I have in navigating my own life.
May we all be strong and confident. Happy new year!