Monday, May 19, 2008

Does Happiness rub off? Can it be transfused from one to the other? Can simply sitting next to Mr. Happy make me the happiest woman on the plane?

I had just attended a three day convention in Sydney on “Happiness and its causes”. I was pretty much saturated with my quota of happiness as I’d had the wonderful opportunity to hear some of the present day great minds like Dr. Richard Davidson- Vilas Professor of Psychology and psychiatry - University of Wisconsin- USA, Matthieu Ricard- Bestselling Author and interpreter for Dalai Lama, also titled the happiest man today, Dr. Martin Seligman- Father of positive Psychology and also a bestselling author of books like Learned Optimism, Authentic happiness, Dr, Tal Ben -Shahar - bestselling author of Happier and the most popular lecturer at Harvard University, Prof Daniel Gilbert- Professor of psychology Harvard University, Jon Konrads, Olympic Champion swimmer and many others.

My brain and my work book were full of all the tools needed to lead a fulfilling and a happy life. I was reminiscing about my three day happiness workshop and checking in for my flight back to HKG from Sydney. As I am checking in I spot Mr. Happy , the familiar face in orange and maroon robe walking away from the check in counter. I quickly ask Sue- the check in lady at Cathay Pacific if Matthieu Ricard had checked in for the same flight? She responds in the affirmative and I quickly ask if I can have the seat next to him?

Unfortunately the seat next to him is taken, so she does the next best thing, she gives me a seat and blocks the seat next to me so that if I get a chance I can ask him to sit next to me. I am very happy indeed! The prospect of sitting next to Mr. Happy for 8 to 9 hours is something that made me extremely happy !!!
I quickly go through immigration and wait for Mr. Happy to show up. As he approaches the aircraft gate, I casually walk towards him to introduce myself, but to my surprise and happiness he actually recognizes me and agrees to sit next to me for the duration of the flight.

Wow! I was in heaven, People had to wait in line just to have a few words with him at the seminar and here I was, going to sit next to him for a full 9 hours. My brain went into overdrive. I could not contain my excitement and I think it spilled over and I was so obviously smitten that Matthieu quickly told me that he would sleep for a few hours and work and meditate for a couple and in between try and answer my questions .

I had to contend with what was on offer. Anything would be better than nothing? I quickly pretended to busy myself with reading and writing about my experience at the “happiness seminar”. I think years of meditation practice had made Matthieu some kind of mind reader. He quickly gathered that I was in an extremely inquisitive state and agreed to answer any questions that I may have.
My first question to him was the most obvious, I asked him what he meant by happiness?

His response in his own writing ( I have it in my book). “Happiness is not simply a succession of pleasant experiences . It is an exceptionally healthy way of being, which pervades all emotional states and gives you the resources to deal with whatever comes your way. Genuine happiness or well being is made of a cluster of inner qualities such as altruistic love; compassion; inner freedom; inner peace and inner strength; that can be cultivated as skills. Rather than being vulnerable to outer circumstances, these qualities give you the capacity to deal with them even in the face of sad events, of the suffering of others, a sense of meaning , determination and the wish to be alive which all are a part of the deepest respect of a constructive way of being. The mind is malleable, Our life can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It requires effort and time."

Am I glad he wrote the above and not just say it? There is no way I could have remembered all this to put it down during my writing. Now that I read it, it seems far too complicated for a philistine like me. In a nut shell, I think what he is saying is, that to be happy, we need to be kind, compassionate , altruistic and not confuse momentary pleasure with lasting happiness. Our brain is very malleable and with a little practice and effort we can all choose happiness over misery.
He is a living proof of all the above qualities. As a young man, Matthieu Ricard, was regarded as one of the most promising biologists of his generation. He completed a PhD at the Institut Pasteur under the supervision of Nobel prize-winner Fran├žois Jacob, but abandoned his scientific career in 1972. He told me that at age 20 he started getting interested in different kinds of meditation and decided to go to Darjeeling in India. There, he devoted himself to studying under Kangyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan master in the Nyingma tradition: the most ancient school of Buddhism. Then at the age of 26 he decided to become a monk and has since devoted his life for all sorts of altruistic causes.

He was leading a very simple life when he was approached by a publisher who asked him if he would agree to a book which would involve a dialogue between him and his agnostic father who was also renowned philosopher. The book got written and published under the title of “ The Monk and the Philosopher”. It became a huge success and overnight Mattheiu Ricard became a very public figure . There was huge media coverage and suddenly the reclusive monk had become a celebrity. This new found fame however reinforced his view of the transitory nature of fame and the ephemeralness of being a celebrant. His overnight success left him even more convinced that inner happiness lay in keeping the mind calm and not letting it get affected by outward fame and fortune.

He received over a million dollars in book royalty and since he had agreed to the vows of monk hood he did the best thing he could think of with the money. He started a foundation called Karuna – that carries out humanitarian and educational projects in Asia. He now devotes a lot of his time raising awareness towards happiness and the plight of people in Tibet, Nepal and India. He has a fair share of skeptics , but I was definitely not one of them. Ever since I had heard him speak on, I had become a fan and a believer in happiness being a skill and a habit.

Given this wonderful opportunity , I was not going to let it pass me by.

My next question to him was regarding having negative or fearful thoughts about your loved ones. I had been experiencing a horrible feeling whereby I would imagine all kind of horrible things happening to my child. I was getting extremely upset and worked up about these thoughts. I put forward my concern and he gave me a wonderful exercise to get rid of these thoughts. But before that he had already put me at ease by saying that I was not alone in this kind of thinking and that many parents experienced this kind of dreadful thoughts and that it was a fairly common phenomenon.

He asked me to do the following meditation exercise:

Begin by generating a powerful feeling of warmth, loving –kindness for all beings. Then imagine the negative thoughts as a black ball in your hand, let this ball grow with all the negativity and the pain associated with your feelings. Inhale this black ball but at the same time visualize your heart as a bright luminous sphere of light that will dissolve all the blackness associated with the negativity. Imagine that you are taking in all the fear and the hurt of the your loved ones and giving out loving and positive energy. This will transform all the fear into hope and suffering into rejoicing . We can do this exercise regularly , even for the world at large. To this my immediate response was, why would I like to take on the suffering of the world? His response- You are not taking upon yourself the suffering, but helping to dissipate the suffering by generating positive energy. It’s like adding one pinch of salt into a huge bucket of water. Even though we add the salt, the water does not really change as the amount of salt is negligible compared to the amount of water. We have to imagine our hearts as huge containers of love and compassion that will easily be able to dissolve in any kind of ill feeling. The bigger we allow our hearts to be the bigger we will become. This meditation is called the meditation of “Giving and taking” you are taking in the suffering and giving out blessings, but in the taking of suffering you are actually getting a whole lot of blessings. Sounds like a paradox ,doesn’t it? But I guess he knows what he is talking about. After all, clinical tests have proven that he is the happiest and the most compassionate man alive.

My next question to him was If he did any kind of exercise ? After all there is proof that a healthy mind needs a healthy body.

His response did not shock me. Here was a man who had meditated over 100,000 hours and had done over 1000,000 prostrations.

In a Prostration you bring your hands together in the 'lotus bud' mudra (the base of the palm and the fingertips together, and thumbs slightly tucked in) and place them on the crown of the head, then to the throat and heart. The actual prostration is performed by dropping the body forward and stretching it full length on the floor, the arms outstretched in front.... Again, with hands in the lotus bud mudra, bend your arms back and touch your hands to the top of your head. Then stretch your arms out once more and push yourself up.... Bring your hands into the lotus bud mudra for the third time and touch your heart in a gesture of reverence. Then, with a smooth motion, bring your hands to your crown and perform the next prostration…..”
It sounds difficult and it looks difficult , but apparently once you start it becomes easier ( as does everything in life). Prostrations are seen as a means of purifying one’s body, speech and mind of karmic defilements . The 5 fingers represent the purification of 5 mental prisons of hatred, craving, ignorance, arrogance and jealousy.

To bow is a way of learning humility and when we are humble, our mind is empty and so we can awaken the Buddha Nature within us.

As I mentioned before, good for the mind- good for the body! Have you ever seen a fat Buddhist monk? Try doing even one prostration and you will know what I mean. It gives the tightest abdominal muscles ever seen and along with that add the control of the breathing and you will be smiling all the way to the swimming pool showing of the perfect body holding the perfect mind!!

For those of you who want to learn, Go to you tube and search Buddhist Prostration.

My trip was going extremely well. It was the most informative and enlightening trip, but the question was would I be a happier person tomorrow? Would sitting next to the happiest man rub off on to me and lead me down the road to life of bliss and fulfillment? Would I suddenly wake up and find the world a beautiful place devoid of pain and suffering? Possibly not, but then it is not about changing the world, it is all about changing our perspective of the world. According to Mr. Happy we incur suffering but we create unhappiness. Changing the way we think and experience emotions leads to a change in moods and to lasting transformation. But this does not happen overnight. I will most certainly not become Miss Happy, but with regular practice and concerted effort it would be more than a possibility.

After all I had spent the last three days in the company of some extremely enlightened and happy individuals. There were definitely some things I should have gathered from my immersion in Happiness and it causes. So in a nutshell: The pre requisites to Happiness

Be kind and generous: even to those you think do not deserve your kindness and generosity. According to Tenzin Palmo – Founder of Dongyu Gatsai Ling Nunnery, India – It is very easy for us to be kind and loving towards a kind and loving person, but the true test of kindness and generosity is when we love those we think are unlovable!!!

Spend Time with Nature: Go for long walks, either in the hills or by the ocean, into the wilderness or wherever you will be one with nature. Nature in its entirety is free for all and it makes us realize that the best things in life are free. The air that we breathe, the scenery that we take in the sunsets and the sunrise are all there for us to partake.

Exercise at least 5 times a week: According to Tal Ben Shahar , a study conducted on depressed people found out that the most beneficial antidote for depression was exerise. Infact he even went on to say that not exercising was like taking a daily depressant. So get your running shoes out and get on that tread mill or if you want to kill two birds with one stone, go for a run in the park.

Show Gratitude and write every night 5 things that you are grateful for: One of the simplest and yet the most beneficial exercise towards happiness is that of writing a gratitude journal . Most of the speakers at the convention talked about the benefits of gratitude. If we are grateful for what we have, we are given more reasons to be grateful for. So go get your pens and note books out and start writing how grateful you are for having a friend like me!!!!!

Practice altruism and unconditional love: The other most talked about topic towards attaining bliss and happiness is the practice of altruism. Altruism does not necessarily mean giving money to charity. Sometimes it is more about sharing your love and kindness. Sharing a skill that you may have? Sharing a smile with a stranger, helping someone without an expectation of returned favor. Sharing your time and your happiness can also be viewed as an act of altruism.

Start meditation practice: Apparently one needs to practice meditation for over 100,000 hours to reach a state of bliss and happiness. But it has been proven in the laboratory that even starting with 5-15 minutes a day has a discernible effect on the cortex of the brain and leads to happier, more productive and more fulfilling lives.

Listen to soothing music: There is after all some truth in the Mozart effect. Calm soothing music is associated with the same kind of brain activity as meditation but at a much smaller scale. So although meditation is the best exercise for the brain, practicing mindfulness in all that we do and listening to calm and soothing music plays has an uplifting effect on the brain.

Start focusing on the good in people : The more we focus on the good in people the more we find it. It is true that till we start looking for something we will definitely not find it. Every so often we are so engrossed in our lives that we fail to appreciate the people around us. Take a moment to appreciate each other and revel in each other goodness.

Start or join a laughter club: We all know that laughter makes us feel good. A regular 20 minute laughter session can have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. Laughter is gentle exercise. It fills your lungs and body with oxygen, deep-clears your breathing passages and exercises your lungs. When we laugh our bodies release a cocktail of hormones & chemicals that have startling positive effects on our system. Stress is reduced, blood pressure drops, depression is lifted, your immune system is boosted & more. So go out and start laughing your head off.

So , thanks to Mr. Happy I hope I have been able to point you towards some happiness .