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When We Are Told "It's Time to Settle Down"

Writer: Erin Lee


When we are told "it's time to settle down"


I was three decades and five years old when an acquaintance - a grandfatherly figure I am quite fond of - upon hearing my age candidly suggested that it was time for me to settle down.


I smiled and gently replied, I am settled.


He hesitated for a second before nodding in agreement. Yes, yes, you are quite right, he acceded. I thought I detected a tinge of embarrassment in him, perhaps for assuming I was anything but "settled".


We both shrugged it off and moved on to the next topic of conversation.


It wasn't the first time I was advised to settle down. In fact, I have heard it all my life - I guess we all have.


As a child, I was told to settle my restless butt and pay attention. At University, I was questioned for not settling on a more promising course of studies. In my 20s, I was chided for not settling with a stable 9-to-5 job. In my 30s, people around me wondered why I wasn't settled down in marriage and starting a family. Now in my 40s, the question of which city I would be settling down in remains inconclusive.


Perhaps when I hit my 60s and 70s, there would be wonderment about how I am settling down in retirement as well.


These concerns come with good intentions, of course, along with learned ideas of how the trajectory of a person's life should be taken. Most of us desire security and stability in a world that doesn't promise any. And so anything that deviates from socially-accepted norms of settling risks being labelled "unstable", "immature", and even "worrisome".



Anything that deviates from social norms risks being labeled "unstable" or "immature"


I have always been curious about how the concept of settling down seems to come with connotations of arriving at the end of a path or concluding a story, such that everything will subsequently be okay, that we won't have to "hustle" anymore, that life will be safe and predictable now, and we can finally be comfortable and at ease.


Because my personal observations of life in reality seem to often disprove this hypothesis. I see retrenchment, job rotations, and mid-career changes; breakups, separations and remarriages; relocations and migrations. There is leaving and returning, quitting and restarting...


Fundamentally I witness in humanity a constant pursuit of some sort of change or renewal, even when one has supposedly "settled down".


Does this have to do with the boredom and restlessness that stability brings? Or do we settle for something out of fear, only to discover later that it wasn't our most optimal choice?


Or... are we just slaves to the unpredictability that is life? Can we ever truly settle down?


The Chinese say "入土为安" (rù tǔ wéi ān), that we are finally at peace when we die and get buried into the ground. Being alive to many of us may feel like a never-ending period of toil, so it must be nice to get to truly rest for a change. But some of us might also believe that even after death we are not settled, at least not for long; we move on to another place - wherever that may be, and begin yet again.


I am an advocate of settling down, by the way. Probably not in the way society-at-large approaches it, but over the years mindfulness has offered me new meaning to these two words.


In navigating the inherent instability of life and negotiating with my own restless nature, I have come to realise there is nothing more important than settling the mind.

Settling the mind has got to be one of the most difficult things I've had to learn to do, much more so than the conventionally-prescribed ways of settling down.


When I told my elderly friend that I was settled, I really meant that I had cultivated the ability to slow down and dwell in some degree of calm and quiet.



Learning to settle the mind begins with meditation


Learning to settle the mind begins with meditation.


Day after day, as I practice being with my experience from moment to moment, the restless mind gradually mellows and understands that there is no need for constant activity, and that it deserves a break every now and then.


The mind gets used to settling into stillness, and with this stillness, a feeling of contentment often arrives. Resting in this contentment, I realise there is no need for anything more or anything less.


It is also important to take these skills "off the cushion" - when the vicissitudes of life inevitably hits, I practice settling the mind and heart in moments of internal turbulence. With composure and equanimity established, I am better able to gather my sensibilities and make the wisest decision I possibly can with what I have and know at that moment in time.


When I practice settling down this way, it feels downright liberating. Settling down has come to be a tried-and-true practice of easing into the complexities of life.

But being able to settle the mind doesn't mean that life becomes safe and predictable as a result. It almost never does. Changes will always happen. Risks are always lurking around the corner. Unpredictability will always knock on our door.


When I am settled, I am grounded in a sense of ease with the conditions that are presented to me, and a feeling of ownership towards what I have committed to.


I remind myself to be fully present with what shows up and follow through with the plans I have made as best as possible.


And when things unexpectedly take a turn, there is less grasping and rejecting, and more adapting and recalibrating.



Settling down has come to be a tried-and-true practice of easing into life.


Ten years ago, after almost a decade of chronic burnout as a corporate executive, I decided on a complete change in my career - I became a mindfulness teacher. I found a base in Singapore, set up my own company, and began working with people who could benefit from what I practiced.


I consider mindfulness advocacy to be my lifework. But I find that I am still on the receiving end of well-meaning concerns about not being settled enough. As a woman who grew up in a relatively conservative culture, even in this day and age I am at times subject to unsolicited advice on avoiding the risks of entrepreneurship, traveling on my own, and attracting too much attention by being so "out there" in the world.


On the other end of the settling down spectrum, many people are very supportive of what I do and assure me that I have found my ikigai. I might just have. People tell me I seem to be very grounded in my vocation, and they can't see me doing anything else. But even though I resolve to keep teaching mindfulness for as long as I can, I have never expected this setup to be the endgame of my professional life.


When it comes to settling down as a practice, I take the cue from my teacher, The Buddha.


In the conventional sense, The Buddha never settled down. He gave up his life as a prince and the future king, and left the comfort of the palace in pursuit of spiritual development. Even after achieving the highest states of meditation, he left his teachers to figure out liberation. And even after reaching the state of enlightenment, he still didn't settle, but chose to travel and teach the world what he had learned for the rest of his life.


I am perhaps vocationally settled for now, in this particular manner, but I am always prepared that my work will "unsettle" again some day.


The company may shut down, my expertise may not be needed anymore, and I might end up working on something completely different.


When that day comes, I will recognise that I have not regressed.


My own practice of settling the mind will go on. And I will likely be continuing this lifelong endeavour of advocacy in some other form that can be helpful to anyone in need.


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