Living the Lembas Life: Johny Tay

Namaste and welcome to the inaugural Living the Lembas Life! In this series, we interview people who do what they love, and live life according to their own design. We find out what they do and the road they took, in hope of inspiring you to follow your own path so you can lead a happy and fulfilled life.

It is our honour and privilege to have Johny Tay to be our first dignitary. We're going to start at the deep end because this is what this series is all about. 

Please, tell us who you are, and about your occupations and pastimes?

I am a native Singaporean who grew up here and spent several years working and living in various parts of the world, particularly in Canada for 5 years.

I have been many things in the past 20 years: a magazine editor, marketer, creative, business innovator, policy writer, academic researcher, published fantasy author, venture builder, and startup founder (4 times). 

Most recently I have re-established my longstanding practice in Qigong, mindfulness, and meditation.

What a lot of professions! The script that society gives us is to aim for the highest paying job, and sets out the academic route to obtain those jobs, and stigmatises people who deviate or drop out from that path. There's also pressure for you to stay in that career for a long time, if not your whole life. What advice would you give to someone who's not entirely happy in their occupation?

I don’t think the old adage of sticking to a job for a long time holds true anymore. It depends on what industry you want to stick to. For government and banks for example, they still value people who stay for 8-10 years at one company; for more dynamic sectors is it normal to keep moving after 2-3 years at one place.

More people are also waking up to the fact that loyalty to an employer doesn't always pay off; when things get tough, often employees are the first to be let go. So why not put more effort into building something of your own?

How did you discover and choose what you wanted to do? What advice would you give to someone who isn’t happy with their job?

I did not have a fixed plan from the start because it’s impossible to plan 20 years ahead! What’s more important, and this is how I still live, is to relentlessly pursue new knowledge and be much better than your former self.

My occupation changes were not random. I used what I learned to advance or leapfrog to the next profession. An observer would think these are all different but I see it all as a whole, parts of the same journey.

For instance, I am currently a venture builder and innovation consultant (www.idealogy.sg). You don’t just come into this after reading a few books. I’m able to do this because I spent the last 15 years helping companies transform and invent new products, across industries and geographies.

Which of your occupations has been your favourite?

Most recently I have re-established my longstanding practice in Qigong, mindfulness, and meditation.

For many years I received cross-discipline training in the various spiritual arts in Asia and had the privilege of teaching and running my own practice in Canada. Now, several years after I returned to Singapore, I am rebooting under a new philosophy and name: Everyday Zen Studios (www.everydayzen.sg)

So that brings to mind years of Shaolin-esque training and meditating in temples and the mountainside, as well as pilgrimages and living a life of austerity. What made you go on this journey, and what was it like?

I started my journey quite early on, in my mid-20s. All my life I have believed that the human body is capable of much more than just sitting at a desk, typing away at a keyboard all day. I observed gymnasts, dancers, and pugilists, and was convinced that the human body is capable of marvellous things. It was also important to me that I adopt something steeped in authentic Asian traditions and philosophy. Eventually I landed with a traditional Chinese clan that taught Qigong, Taiji, and their associated philosophies.

It’s important for me to state that this is just part of my background and not all of it, as you’ll read later.

Was the training as strict as depicted in movies? What most of us know of "spiritual journeys" is what we see from movies — is that what you went through?

Initially I only intended to learn basic Qigong (life-energy practice) and be done after three months. In the process I realized that their knowledge encompassed far more than that. As with all authentic clans, they had a complete system of philosophy and disciplines around that; in this case, it was Taoism. They encouraged me to stay on. Years later, they encouraged me to take the exam to be an instructor. Even more years later, when I had the chance to reside in Canada, they encouraged me to found a new branch there and become the chief instructor in Canada.

The funny thing is that throughout this journey, which had been 10 years at that point, I had never asked for any of these advancements. They were offered and I accepted with reluctance and even self-doubt.

My time as an instructor in North America was the most eye-opening. When you’re on your own, with no-one to back you up if you’re in trouble, you develop true grit and become a true steward of what you represent.

This time was also when I had the chance to meet and exchange knowledge with practitioners from a staggering variety of traditions: Zen monks, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, neo-Shamans, Christian priests… The experience has given me a holistic, pan-cultural view of spiritual practices and methods.

Eventually I realized that in order to impart authentic knowledge across cultures, it is vital to focus on the most essential content across traditions... minus the superstition and mysticism.

That is not saying I dismiss the ancient, mystical elements of these traditions. I do not want to confuse anyone with mysticism unless they really want to discuss it. It is important to engage people in the context they are most comfortable with. When with a Shaman, I talk about spiritual energy; when with a scientist, I talk about mindfulness-based psychology (which I am also qualified to discuss as I have a Master of Science degree).

This juncture was also when I needed to part ways with my old clan, after I returned to Singapore. What I know and how I impart that knowledge are now fundamentally different from how they do it. It’s not that I am better. My life path has taken me in a different direction.

Just these few paragraphs alone stem from enough experiences to fill several books! Perhaps some day, I will find enough people who care to listen to share these experiences...

Can you break rocks with your hands or sit in the snow for hours? 

Everyday Zen Studios (www.everydayzen.sgdoes not teach martial arts and I have no interest in that in the foreseeable future.

There is an almost limitless variety of Qi. An eloquent politician has a “type” of Qi that attracts voters. A charismatic performer has another “type” of Qi that attracts fans. Conversely, there are people who leave us drained and depressed after a conversation; they are what you call “whiners and complainers”. They, too, have a “type” of Qi that drains your positivity and energy.

So, there exists a “type” of Qi that allows the practitioner to break bricks (like the Shaolin monks), and another “type” of Qi that allows the practitioner to endure great physical discomfort (like the Tibetan lamas).

But in my opinion, these feats are of little importance and are, in fact, harmful to practitioners. Apart from the obvious risks to the body, they pose even bigger threats to the mind. If you have learned to perform these feats, you will be seduced by the notion that you are somehow special, and deserve more favours from the world.

Can you see the harm in that notion? No, you are not special. You need to work a job, pay your bills, and learn to co-exist with other people like everyone else. You suffer life’s disappointments like everyone else. So this disjoint between your self-image and reality causes a lot of anger towards the world, towards other people. Call it the “dark side of the Qi" if you want.

So it is far better to focus on the true goal of Qi: to transform your health (body) and mind, and by extension, nurturing your wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness. Why break bricks when it’s far more important to use that energy to “break” your prejudices, obsessions, and limited views of the world?

What can be more important than this in the face of the problems we face today?

We see that you have a lot of experience and knowledge in various schools of spirituality. Can you give us a brief overview of spirituality, its importance and application in today's society? 

There is a saying: “Religion is for people who fear Hell; spirituality is for people who have been there”. It is critical that spirituality not be confused with religion, though it is possible for the two to overlap. 

Spirituality is deeper and far more subtle. It is something that the “spirit” has always needed but deceives itself into thinking that this need can be satisfied with superficial measures of success, like wealth, power, and fame... and membership in powerful "clubs".

Such things are not inherently bad; they can be used for good if in the right hands. However, once you get them you eventually realize that they are substitutes for a far deeper need ⁠— the need for meaning, goodness, and connection with something greater than the individual.

It is possible for religious people, as well as atheists, to have a profound sense of spirituality. As long as you are a thinking sentient human with a healthy mind, you have a spiritual side. This is true across beliefs, cultures, and eras.

Our present world is in dire need for more spirituality. We are living in a time of severe insanity and suffering, with mad rulers, a pillaged environment, and a culture of ego-obsession. 

Singapore has always been a spiritually-starved society, a spiritual desert in need of nourishment. You see it in the vacuous complaints on social media, in the thousand-yard stares of the commuters on the buses and MRT trains, and in the mindless rushes for the latest gadgets (and recently, in the supermarkets when new coronavirus measures are announced).

To add on to this, the complete lack of smiles, acknowledgement and connection from people. It's as if everyone is trying their best to ignore the existence of everyone else. A friendly greeting is met with expressions of shock, as though I've insulted their extended family tree, before I get a quick mumbled reply and aversion of eyes if I'm lucky. Otherwise it's bewildered silence. Heartbreaking.

The problem is not technology or modernity. The problem is mental conditioning ⁠— we are taught from a young age that wealth, beauty, and status are the most important, and that the best attitude for success is to “steal other people’s lunches”. 

"It is not enough that I should win - other people must lose." I've heard of that but thankfully never come across a preaching of that attitude or anyone who bears that, visibly at least. Perhaps it's more subtle here than other cultures.

Well, no-one is going to preach that outwardly but there are plenty of people who live out this mindset through their actions and attitudes towards others.

The problem with “stealing other people’s lunches” is that the other parties can come back and do something worse to you. That’s karma! Instead of stealing others’ lunches, how about figuring out a way to grow food better so that everyone has plenty to eat? How about ensuring that in the process of growing food, minimal harm is inflicted on the environment so that the conditions for farming and living remain pleasant to everyone? 

That’s the difference between a less spiritual and more spiritual person. It’s not at all about belief in any supernatural being or force; it’s about thinking with a broader frame of mind and seeing the inter-connectedness of things.

What is your primary source of income?

I live a “normal” life like everyone else. For most of my life I work full-time jobs, part-time business projects, and get some passive income from my published books. 

Everyday Zen Studios is my new side business. It won’t be run like a high-growth new venture where the need to maximize revenue is paramount. For me, it is more important to have the “right” learners rather than a large number of learners. In fact, I may choose not to teach someone if I deem the person a bad fit for the knowledge.

So for now, this is something I do casually during the weekends or off-days.

What can people expect to go through, and learn, through your practice? They say do what you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life - have you found that to be true?

Currently I work through a small number of partners, such as wellness studios and social clubs. I welcome anyone who runs a gathering space to discuss a partnership. I’m also open to corporate events like lunchtime meditation sessions or mindfulness workshops, as well as individuals who want classes for themselves or their private groups.

The best thing about being independent is the freedom to reinvent and cater your content for the occasion. For one-off events like workshops or trial classes, I have introductory content for Qigong and Meditation designed to leave a lasting outcome. Some studio partners want repeating, drop-in classes, so I teach simplified formats for such arrangements that allow any newcomer to follow the class with ease.

Of course, my core knowledge comes with cumulative classes, the format that traditional lineage clans teach in. Learners come in weekly or even twice a week, and learn something new to add to their cumulative set of skills. This is exactly like learning a language in school: first you learn the alphabet, then basic words, then sentences, and so on. You don’t drop anything you’ve learned but build upon them for advancement.

Qi empowers the body from the inside. Meditation strengthens the mind with its own resources. But this is just the beginning. I have literally decades of knowledge that can be shared. In time, I hope to get the chance to share the deeper levels of my knowledge, knowledge that ultimately helps people become empowered, balanced, and insightful, thinking humans.

Secondly, and this is learned from decades of hard experience ⁠— sometimes it is healthier and more productive to pursue one’s passion on a casual, part-time basis. This removes the financial burden from the passion, so you are free to take it in the direction you want for the benefit of all. The art becomes your focus, not the money.

How have your learnings benefited you, and over what timeline, say from 5 or 10 years ago to present?

If you look at the trajectory of my life, you’ll see that I change my focus every 2 to 3 years. These are not complete occupational changes, but learning to take on bigger challenges based on what I learned in the last 1 to 2 years. I think that we should always be in a constant state of learning, adapting, and improving ourselves. Water needs to flow; if it stays stagnant, it loses its true potential. 

There is a downside to this of course. Immense patience and insight is required and quite often things may not turn out the way you want. You need to cope with failure and some failures can have lifelong consequences. 

Have you found your purpose in life? What is it? How, when and where did you discover or create it?

I subscribe to the saying, “One’s purpose in life... is to live a life of purpose”.

“Purpose” is a loaded word that is quite misunderstood. We are conditioned to believe that a life story begins with finding this “purpose” early on, spending a lifetime pursuing it, and then succeeding. Roll credits. 

Things don’t often work out this way. “Purpose” is transient. It is regularly changed by new experiences, events, and the maturing of one’s character. Can you really say you know your purpose if your knowledge is incomplete and new experiences can compel you to change your view of life? And if you have been holding on to a purpose you had since childhood, has it actually become an unhealthy attachment instead?

So to this question I’d say that I have held and finished several “purposes” in the last few decades. Now I avoid the obsession with “purpose” and focus instead on the process, or the “way”. The “way” is to cultivate virtue, resilience, and wisdom on a daily basis. Now, this is much more difficult than it sounds... but I try.

Are you happy?

I would cultivate equanimity over happiness. Happiness, like most human emotions, is fleeting and highly dependent on external stimuli that you have little control over. You can be extremely happy one moment because you just got to eat your favourite delicacy an hour ago... and then become extremely miserable the next moment because someone insulted you.

Equanimity, on the other hand, is an attitude of accepting things “as they are” and not harbouring any preconceived notion that each thing is “good” or “bad”.

What advice would you give Singaporeans? What advice would you give the world in general?

I don’t think myself qualified to advise anyone on life, especially to anyone older and to the world! I would share something generic: to be rich, beautiful, or famous is fine, but always seek balance in life and never neglect cultivation of the mind and spirit. 

In the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry in The Little Prince: “The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart".

Thank you so much for your time and wisdom Johny. We hope this was of value to you and if you or anyone you know are doing what they love, we'd love to talk to them to find out what they do and how they did it, so others can learn from them. Hit us up at live@lembas.sg. We wish you peace!

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