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Close Up Phng Li Kheng on planting inner peace with Kechara Forest Retreat

Phng Li Kheng on planting inner peace with Kechara Forest Retreat

Phng Li Kheng
By Karmun Ng
April 06, 2015

Phng Li Kheng has seen it all in the cut-throat world of business, but it was in the humblest of acts -- planting a flower -- that taught her the most important life lesson yet. 

Phng Li Kheng is a name that, over the past few years, has been making a frequent appearance in many business forums and social media.

Her story of how she single-handedly turned around her family-owned The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf business from near bankruptcy into the successful chain it is today in Shanghai serves as a case study and source of motivation for success for many.

What boggled people even more was her decision to sell the business after seeing it transform from a sinking ship into a textbook model success.

“Shanghai has one of the most dynamic business environments in the world,” tells Phng. “In the 10 years I was there, I witnessed so many changes – intense changes – that I believe can motivate people, individually, as a group or even as a country.”

That want to inspire others is main reason why the bubbly 36-year-old has decided to leave behind the shining corporate world and venture into the woods, literally, for her next adventure.  Giving up her title as the business development director for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Shanghai, she now wears her other title more proudly – that of the green lifestyle project manager at Kechara Forest Retreat.

“Most of my life was spent in Shanghai but in the past 2 years I have been spending more time with nature. I’m a farmer now,” she says with a cheeky grin. “Like I really mean I’m personally using my hands and planting stuff into the ground.”

After 10 long years in the cut-throat world of a Food & Beverage business, Phng found herself happiest being surrounded by Mother Nature.

“I was not a green person,” she shares. “I didn’t have plants in my apartment. When I first started going into this nature thing, everyone was shocked.”

With the guidance of her spiritual teacher Tsem Rinpoche at the Kechara Forest Retreat, she began to see how our lives are reflective of nature and how it can help unlock our full potential.

“Planting, learning how to maintain a garden, learning how to make compost, working with so many types of people from so many different backgrounds, they’re not just about the act of planting,” she tells.

“The act of going green really opened up my mind and my heart about leadership, about humanity. I learned from nature one of the most important life lessons of all – acceptance.”

Learning from Mother Nature

As a businesswoman, Phng was result-driven and trusted only the numbers in the business reports. 

“My mind was very rigid and closed,” she admits. “It was how I always took on life. When I planned a budget, I expected certain things. Those are guidelines and they are important. They are a framework for us to direct our efforts towards. But sometimes when things turn out differently or if I get too fixed on the plan, I will get overwhelmed by disappointment. “

“What’s worse was that sometimes I fail to see new opportunities that arise from the change in plan.”

Her first few weeks with nature was no different. 

“My first few weeks with nature saw me at war with it,” she says with a laugh. Like with life, she went into it with a picture perfect garden in mind where everything will grow symmetrically and as she envisioned. 

She also found herself impatient at the speed – or the lack thereof – of the growth of her saplings. When they did finally shoot from the ground, she was horrified that they weren’t growing in the way she wanted them to.

 “I was trying to prune things into the shape I want it, trying to will the flowers to grow equally on both sides. I kept trying to control things,” she laments.

One fine afternoon, after a long session of pruning under the blistering sun, she was hit by a sudden dawn of revelation.

“I took a step back, looked at everything from a bigger picture and asked myself, what is the big difference? Are the parts that were unworked on so ugly and bad? No.”

“I learnt to realise that sometimes, yes, we have to make effort, we have to put in our devotion and dedication, hardwork and discipline into our projects, but at the same time take it on with an openness to see things as they are.” 

Since then, she has not gone back to making the same mistakes, either with her plants or with her life. She sees her flowers as the main stars of her garden, the same way she sees the people she has to interact with on a daily basis in her life. 

“I used to work only with people I like,” she tells. “I only work with people I can get along with. I only work with people who share similar priorities and styles with me. But that would mean I’m cutting off everyone else who are not within my scope that I could potentially learn from. I’m cutting off opportunities with these people.”

“Through gardening, I learned all this. I learned to be humbled by them. I learned that they may have certain traits that I don’t. I also learnt to be relaxed."

“I now see the value in some intangible aspects of life.”




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Close Up mental spiritually Kechara Forest Retreat zen interview Mother Nature wellness gardening nature Buddhism plants wellbeing business development director Phng Li Kheng green lifestyle project manage The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Sha


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