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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#007 Renyung Ho: on systems change, negotiating fear, mindfulness & language

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

We sat down with Renyung Ho, founder of Matter and second-generation leader at Banyan Tree Hotels, to talk about systems thinking, awakening moments, mortality, deep mindfulness practises, language as the architect of our reality, and her decision to evolve Matter Prints.

Renyung Ho is an independent entrepreneur, impact investor, humanitarian and writer. Not only has she spearheaded Banyan Tree’s hospitality groups sustainability initiatives, but she has also woven well-being into the very fabric of the hospitality experience. As one of Singapore’s pioneers in artisanal and slow fashion, Ren has been an inspiration to many, showing how fashion can be different.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ren for a number of years now. Her humility, curiosity for life, deep eloquence and poetic use of words, have always left me in awe of this remarkable woman. And today’s conversation is no different. If you’d prefer to listen to our chat and allow Renyung’s soothing voice take you away, head on over to the Live Wide Awake Podcast on your streaming platform of choice.

“It is clear that now more than ever before we need a compass to navigate the “in here” against the chaos of “out there”. And yet, in the desire for this illusion of control, we may be putting up more barriers than ever.”

On her awakening moment…

I was working in the Maldives on a tiny island in the marine lab there more than a decade ago. It really is tiny, you see the sunrise on one side, and if you walk five minutes you’re on the other side and you see the sunset. We were out on a boat on a sunset cruise and we saw a pod of dolphins, they were all around us. I jumped into the water and at that point in time, I was free diving so I could go down without air for quite a while. I followed three dolphins as they were going deeper and realise that one of them was an alpha, one a mother, and the third one was a young calf.

As they went further and I went deeper, the alpha comes and faces me until he’s a meter away, really eye to eye. He starts speaking to me in dolphin language and he’s nodding his head speaking to me, holding eye contact and I’m holding my breath and I want this moment to be forever. I respond with clicking noises. I have no idea what I’m saying, but I make noises underwater. I could very clearly understand him saying “Hey, I feel a little bit uncomfortable that you are following me our young calf here. Just checking in, who are you?” By this time we had done a few things like clicking, and he was rolling, so I rolled as well but then I couldn’t hold it anymore and I’m just surfaced.

That moment has always stayed with me because it was my first feeling of true interconnectedness with nature. For me, that is the complexity of sustainability. It is like a body of thought and a body of work, of all your discussions and encounters. But it’s also a mindset of how one action leads to another understanding. The moment of meeting with that dolphin had a butterfly ripple effect for me – where, yes I had always had this love for nature, but I hadn’t actually made any real moves in advocating for sustainability. That was my pivotal moment that started a big journey of understanding the complexity of what it takes to make something and the impact it has along the way.

On immunity to change…

I truly believe that all change is emotional, even systemic change starts somewhere. It starts from people who are filled with a sudden emotion of wanting to do something and are passionate about it and have the tenacity to drive things through. The idea that all change is emotional is a very powerful one for me, not only on an individual level but also an organisational level. There is immunity to change that we cannot underestimate. And the only catalyst to shifting that is if we shift the emotional landscape and undertone of an individual, a group of people, or an organization.

On systems thinking…

I’m a big fan of systems thinking, but I’m also a big fan of individual choice. And the notion that systems are made up of individuals and companies are made up of individuals. One of the things that I feel has been a bit dangerous this year, is the overall sense of helplessness, and how systemic changes seems to be beyond us. Depending on who you ask, some people are positive about ‘the great reset’, while others feel it won’t happen. That’s the eternal battle between optimists and pessimists – but I come back to individual choice. Because if we don’t have a sense that we have a choice and our actions matter, then where does life go? It requires all of us to think about systems change as not something outside ourselves, but something that is related to every single thing that we do. And yes, learning how to make our own individual life sustainable is an uphill challenge. But it makes a difference and leads to advocacy and activism, and then it can become politics.

On life as a garden…

Life is like a garden. Our minds and our hearts are like gardens and we choose what to cultivate and what to make space for. We can’t control everything but we can come to terms with ourselves. The first phase of the journey for me was about planting seeds. Of course, I had a lot of self-doubt during that time – questioning is this right for me? Is this a silly idea? Why is it that I seem to be different? I didn’t have any practises or mechanism for putting the self-talk aside. So I worked to understand my inner dialogue, to recognise where the criticism was coming from, identify the patterns, shut them off and move forward.

The second phase was learning to negotiate fear. This was when I entered Banyan Tree and had a lot of desire to make change. But even though I had a firm conviction of the change I wanted to make, I had to face the other side which was fear. What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t even make a difference? What if I’m not even fighting for the right thing? It’s another version of self-doubt. When I confronted this self-doubt, what I unearthed was a fear of disappointing people, a fear that I’d never live up to family’s expectations. A big part of the journey was coming to terms with that and making sure I like the person I see in the mirror in the morning, that I believe in what I am fighting for, and staying true to what my version of success looks like – no matter what expectations are around me.

On loneliness…

The third phase of the journey for me was about loneliness. Of course, I am very grateful to be surrounded by value-aligned people and have an incredibly supportive partner. But sometimes even if you’re surrounded by a community, moments of loneliness comes to anyone who’s trying to work outside the system or to move something into another place. There are these periods of limbo when you’re acknowledging that you’re not where you want to be yet, where you know you are trying to change things, with a strong trajectory in your mind, but also trying to be present in the here and now. It can create a bit of a sense of loneliness. And it’s not necessarily a negative emotion, sometimes you just sit with it. I found that deep emersion in nature helps me through it.

On enjoying the journey…

I tend to go away by myself to climb a mountain on my birthday every year. It started when I was 18. The tradition is just to be there at sunrise. Sometimes it takes two days, sometimes three to four. It’s not about being at the top, it’s about the walking. It’s a mental metaphor that reminds me of my approach to life – to enjoy the journey along the way. When I am waking, I am present, I am taking things in around me, connecting with nature and animals along the way. Being alone gives me clarity. Not just clarity on what I want to do with the next year, which is also part of the ritual – intention setting, but it also gives me clarity on what it feels like to be me. In our daily lives we are constantly interacting with others, and who we are is made up of those interactions, along with our actions and our daily thoughts.

We are constantly changing. Can you be the same person that walks into a river twice? Is it even the same river? When I am by myself I remember my state of being. It’s like a powerful meditation that lasts three to four days, a gift to myself. I’m grateful for my family understanding that as well. It’s not just about going away for a few days, it’s also about cultivating the silence that you can tap back into daily, a mindfulness practice.

On mindfulness…

I turned to mindfulness when I was going through a really difficult time in my life. It was a way for me to process emotions, a way to kind of create a protective bubble around myself. It was the sense of control in a way, wanting to protect and shield myself, to acknowledge and quiet in my emotions, as it was very hard for me to sit with them. I turned to it from an escapist point of view, to escape from my life and create a safe place. We often talk about mindfulness in a lens of productivity for mental focus or emotional well being. And that is fantastic. But mindfulness is one part is about understanding where you are, but the other part is forgetting yourself and being part of something else, connected to something bigger. And nature is a very powerful tool for this, where you can truly appreciate something bigger and more ancient, that works with an intelligence that we just simply do not comprehend.

On language as a technology…

We are social animals and we live in the context and web of other people. What has shifted for me in the practice of mindfulness is with other people. I used to absorb other people’s energy and emotions and it was very stressful for me. I developed a skill, and I truly believe that it is a skill, to love to listen. The skill of mindful interpersonal reaction, communication and interaction, is something I feel that we should be teaching in schools. Because it’s the basis for how we build dialogue, how we develop cooperation, how we collaborate with one another towards shared goals. Which brings us to language. Language is a technology, it’s one of our first and foremost tools. And yet the way that we learn how to use it is incredibly basic. Language is the way in which we touch each other, invisibly. And if we learn how to create and shape the context within which we interact through our language, that can be a powerful thing.

On a new chapter with Matter Prints…

I had a sense for a while that I needed to change. The business was doing well, we were growing 20% year on year and in our sixth year, which is usually when you see greater growth, we had economies of scale. Yet I just had this sense that we had gotten into a point where we were just creating more clothing. I started Matter to change the conversation around what is possible with ethical fashion, what is possible with artisan craft, to show you can have fairly accessible, aspirational clothing that is made start to finish in an artisan way, that you can be proud to wear in an urban setting.

Now, I’m so happy to see so many similar brands that are out there and how the ethical fashion conversation in Asia has grown. But for us I didn’t feel like we were changing the conversation anymore. I felt that we were definitely staying true to our roots, but we were just growing, and while there’s nothing wrong with growth, something didn’t sit right. So I had that in the back of my mind already, then when COVID happened we just saw everything drop. In a way we could have continued and just scaled down inventory and so on. But there was just so many things that told me, why continue for the sake of continuing?

Looking back now, there were a few factors. One being part of a larger company Banyan Tree, I needed to shift my focus entirely on that. Another part is that our supply chain was in India which was one of the worst hit countries, which logistically would continue to be a challenge. And inventory and cashflow was something I didn’t feel comfortable with in the retail industry. But I’m looking forward to seeing that changing. Of course we are honouring all of the collaborations and collections that we had in the pipeline. We are exploring a new crowdfunding model, where we would only make what is desired. And also looking at how we can support a coalition or collective of artisans and designers. A few ideas are brewing, but I’m glad we’ve been able to take this pause in a way that was graceful, while honouring our partners and team in the right way.

On living wide awake…

There are two life mantras that come to mind. Since I was a teenager I held a Confucius saying very close to me that says “wherever you go, go with all your heart“. For me it is so simple, but it speaks everything about presence and about remaining open-hearted with a strong back and soft front (which is a pillar of mindfulness). As I’ve changed throughout the years, I always return back to my heart to make sure I embody this. The second, is a Marcel Proust quote “the real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

It reminds me to have perspective, and that it is our choice how we live our lives. The language that you use, the perspective that you have, whether it’s be optimistic or negative, is a choice. Sometimes it’s tiring to have so many choices, but at the same time, when you recognize that everything is a choice and you are truly the person that is most responsible for creating your own reality, then we take off the victim mindset, we take off the ability to blame everything else, and instead try to shape things that are within our power. I think that is the ultimate freedom.

If you want to hear to the full conversation, head to your favourite podcast streaming service or listen here to Renyung Ho.

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