On Happiness

I’ve heard Guruji (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) often ask those he meets, “Are you happy?” For years I’ve heard it, and for me it has always been a powerful ‘back-to-basics’ moment of introspection, gratitude, and understanding.

Recently I listened to the NPR TED Radio Hour episode titled Simply Happy. It hit home because I’ve been ruminating on this topic for the last few months, ever since Guruji changed the name of the Art of Living course to the Happiness Program for audiences in North America. Shraddha and I were there in the room with Guruji along with some 200 other Art of Living teachers last December in Boone. Guruji simply said that in India, Art of Living is (formally or informally, I forget) being billed as the Happiness Program, since that name captures the essence of the course much better; were we doing that here in the US? No? Well, then let’s start! And that’s how quickly the name changed.

That really got me even more conscious of the idea of happiness, which is an integral part of the Art of Living course (of course). Time and again I’ve remembered in these past three months that happiness is really a choice I can make each day, each moment.

I’ve summarized below the big ideas from the NPR podcast, but you really should listen to the whole thing:

There’s a strong correlation between being present and being happy. No matter how dull or how exciting a task may be, being more present while doing it equates to being more happy. Apparently that applies to anything, from spending time with the family to hauling garbage. We can be in the most pleasant tropical island paradise surrounded by our loved ones… and if we’re not present, we won’t be happy. On the show, the host described a study that provided this correlation, and then asked the question, “So how do we become more present?” And the answer given on the radio by the expert was, “I don’t know.”

I actually yelled out a loud “aargh” when I heard that. I was driving and alone in my car so no one else heard me yell, but I wished I could correct the show host and tell him that there is an easy way. This is the essence of what we experience in the Art of Living. The answer is in the breath! In the rhythms of the sudarshan kriya our whole being comes alive and we learn how to be intensely present, not as a concept but as an experience. And time and again we come back to the breath, polish and polish, and the presence starts to grow in our life.

So, breathe.

The next big ideas was: slow down. Especially in the west we’re a chronically sleep-deprived overscheduled society, and slow is a dirty word. But the recipe for happiness is not more speed. So let’s slow down.

Once the basic needs are met, less stuff usually correlates to more happiness. More stuff equates to higher credit card debt, a larger environmental footprint, and more clutter that has spawned a multi-billion dollar storage industry in the west. Decluttering and reducing stuff is something I’ve been experimenting with for a while, but truth be told I’ve a long way to go. Sites like Leo Babauta’s mnmlist are amazing. Also the idea of 100 things.

The effects of a tragic life-event on our happiness are short-lived, usually about three months long. Yes that even includes major events like deaths in the family. This idea was really new to me, but also very reassuring. It’s never the end of the world.

Be grateful. If we look for reasons to complain, we’ll always find them, and that’s a sure way to drag ourselves down. If we look for reasons to be grateful, why yes we’ll find them too, and that’s a surefire way to uplift our consciousness and stay happy. If you’re reading this blog post of mine, chances are that you have plenty of reasons to be grateful, so be grateful. 🙂

There’s a cool game on the Art of Living course… oops, I meant to say the Happiness Program, that teaches the above idea. Get on a course and find out!

I’ve saved the best for the last. The final idea from the podcast is this: there’s no secret to being happy. So stop seeking happiness and start living it. It’s that simple. Yes it really is, though the mind wants to contradict and complicate things. Choose to be happy, agree to be happy, and the happiness just starts to take over.

There’s one more idea that the podcast did not cover that I think is essential to happiness: serve. If all that we’re engaged in is the pursuit of our own happiness, misery is usually the result. Every now and then, we need to stop thinking about ourselves and devote some time, effort, and energy to caring for those around us, in whatever small capacity we can. I consider service one of the essential needs of the human spirit, and one of the cornerstones of happiness.

Guruji says it’s both an order and a blessing… Be happy!

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Books and E-books

I quite enjoy reading Kindle e-books electronically. It’s very convenient to have a collection of e-books to choose from for a flight or a wait somewhere, without any added bulk to carry. It’s also satisfying that the Kindle edition is often cheaper than the hardcover or paperback especially when the book is new. And the instant gratification is nice as well.

However there’s something about holding a printed and bound book in my hands that the e-book medium doesn’t quite match. As Seth put it, “a book is a souvenir of an idea”. Each time I see a book on my bookshelf, the idea it represents is recalled to my mind instantly. Also when I take a quick glance at someone else’s bookshelf, I get a snapshot of their interests and the ideas they value. I can’t lend an e-book to a friend. I also buy used books quite often, which is something you can’t do with e-books. So I’m not quite ready to give up my physical books and my bookshelf just yet…

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The Body-Mind Connection

Recently I watched a TED talk by Amy Cuddy titled Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. It is well known that our body language conveys as much or more than our words do. In this talk, Cuddy said that our “non-verbals” also dictate how we think and feel about ourselves. In her study, participants assumed ‘high power poses’ or ‘low power poses’ for just two minutes before being evaluated in a few ways. Two minutes was sufficient to create a noticeable change in interview outcomes and measured hormone levels (high testosterone, low cortisol). Those who assumed ‘high power poses’ were found to have more presence: more enthusiasm, greater confidence, higher risk-taking ability, etc. than the other group, as evaluated by a panel who was blind to the hypothesis and to the conditions.

I summarized her talk into the following two points:

  1. Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our habits, and habits change outcomes.
  2. If you don’t feel powerful, you can fake it till you make it.

So if we do fake it, and we ace the job interview, or the negotiation, or the social situation… then what? Do we feel like a bit of a fake, like we weren’t supposed to be there? To answer that question, Cuddy tells an absolutely moving and heart-warming story that has only a slim connection with the topic of high power poses or hormone levels. Watch the video embedded below to hear the story; it nets her a standing ovation at TED.

The notion that the body has an effect on the mind isn’t new. I’m sure there’s plenty of research linking physical exercise to mental well-being. There’s also the ancient science of yoga that links specific postures to specific effects on the mind. BKS Iyengar, in his epic book titled Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, has a whole section on Yoga for Stress, where he lists out specific benefits for the mind from each posture. And of course from my own practice of the Art of Living, it is abundantly clear to me that the breath is the link between the body and the mind; breathing in specific rhythms harmonizes the rhythms of the mind very effectively.

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An Appreciation for the Subtle

An appreciation for the subtle is usually a sign of refinement.

Consider art, or music, or literature, or sculpture, or any such refined pursuit. Human beings can survive without any of the above, if we’re talking purely physical or gross survival. However it’s the refined pursuits that distinguish the hunter-gatherer of bygone millennia from the aesthete of today — the latter has the appreciation for the subtle that the former hadn’t developed fully.

Subtler still are questions of the spirit… What is consciousness? Why are we here?

I remember a moment from last November when Michael Fischman (senior faculty member of the Art of Living, and one of my TTC trainers) was with us in Austin. A few of us had just enjoyed a nice vegetarian dinner at Mother’s Cafe and were waiting to get dessert at Dolce Vita. That’s when Michael shared, that pursuing a spiritual practice or a spiritual path was not for everybody. It takes a very deep appreciation for the subtle, and much culturing of the mind. Specifically, it takes an appreciation of things like the impact of sound (mantra) on our consciousness, and the ability to be aware of what’s going on in our own mind.

This is all the more important when we’re surrounded by consumerism and the pursuit of stuff.

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Joining the The Cult of Done

If you haven’t read the Cult of Done (by bloggers Bre Pettis and Kio Stark), click over to Pettis’ blog and read it. It’s worth every bit of the 3 minutes it will take.

The Cult of Done

Somewhat independently of the referenced blog post (or manifesto, or whatever you choose to call it) I have been on a path to arriving at similar conclusions. So when I found this post online, I was ecstatic. I have already been a proponent of it’s a good idea to implement a good idea, taught in yesplus courses. Specifically my issue was with keeping things for long periods as ‘work in progress’ or ‘draft’, and many things never came out of draft. On the writing, photography, and creative front, I have many unfinished projects littering my hard drive.

The Cult of Done says everything is a draft. I prefer to turn that concept around. Nothing is a draft.

Now when I save or share anything I’m creating, it never has a stamp of work in progress. No ‘to do’ notes in slides, no placeholders in spreadsheets or blog post drafts. Or comments inside source code like /* clean this up some day */. No more. Working on an image in Lightroom? No more unfinished drafts. However far I get, I’ll export it out and publish to Flickr. At every stage, each file I save is a finished product. It’s not perfect, but I can ship it anyway if I choose to.

A few weekends ago I was writing up some thoughts on a particular experience I had just gone through, and I published it as a PDF for Shraddha to read on our shared DropBox folder. A few hours later I remembered more details, added a few paragraphs to my write-up, and re-published the PDF. Then the next morning I remembered more, and added more text. And then I did it again, and again. All told, I must have had 10 or 12 successive versions of  that PDF, each one longer than the next. However none of them were incomplete drafts. They were all done pieces. Had Shraddha picked up the PDF to read, any one of them would have been a good (enough) account of the event. Turns out she never did read any earlier version, and she only got to read my final final version after two days. But the beauty of the whole process is that I could have stopped (and I did stop) whenever I wanted, and there was no ‘final cleanup’ to be done.

Having watched an interview with Seth Godin, I’m realizing that most of his projects are done this way. He can stop whenever he wants, and frequently he does.

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Attitude and Practice

Attitude matters for sadhana*Contrast the two:

  1. Let me get my kriya and meditation done and out of the way, so that I can work on x, y, and z. OR
  2. Let me withdraw from the senses for a while to do my kriya and meditation. I want nothing, I am nothing, and I’m doing nothing.

I’m pretty sure it’s the latter attitude that has more benefits over the long term. I’m sharing this because I’ve been catching myself in the former mode for many days now, and this just occurred to me today as I was doing my sadhana this morning.

* Sadhana = regular practice; yoga, kriya, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, music, etc.

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Krypton Community College in Austin

I recently started following Seth Godin’s blog. His blog is a treasure trove of inspiration and insight, all available for free!

Reading these ideas online is not the same as implementing any of them. For those who would like to see his work make a difference in their own life, Seth is starting an initiative called Krypton Community College. Krypton classes aim to give you the tools and soft skills needed for your personal and professional life. I wanted to attend in Austin, and couldn’t find anyone else who was organizing a class. So with the help of my friends I am hosting one! Join us, we will learn and have fun together. 🙂

October’s topic: Seth Godin on Shipping

The first week’s session: Go: How to Overcome Fear, Pick Yourself, & Start a Project that Matters

Time commitment: Wednesdays at 7 pm. We meet four times, once a week for four weeks, for 90 minutes each.  Expect to spend another hour during the week for prep.

Everyone in the course gets a PDF with links to articles, etc., and we come together to discuss and figure out how to push each other to dive deeper into the work. Did I mention its all free directly from Seth!

You can find out more about the thinking behind this at the Krypton site, which is part of Seth’s blog.

Anoop and I are quite excited about hosting this course. For Austinites who are reading this, I hope you’ll give it a shot and join us. The first session is Wed Oct 2nd, 7 pm to 8:30 pm. Drop me a reply and let me know you’ll be able to come.

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