The Wisdom of Indra

While in Nepal, I hired a guide named Indra to show me around Kathmandu Valley. Indra apologized that he wasn’t fluent in English. His economy of words resulted in some memorable and wise one liners.

“Every Boy Has Scooter.”

As we drove through Kathmandu’s crowded and crazy action-packed streets, Indra sighed and commented, “Every boy has scooter.” He wasn’t exaggerating. The scooter population in Kathmandu is about 700,000, with approximately 1.7 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley. I had a blast riding on the back of a scooter to and from Tranquility Spa in the Thamel district, where the massages are incredible, and incredibly inexpensive. I highly recommend it (both the spa and the scooter ride).

“Very Cheap, No Need.”

Kathmandu is a haven if you’re shopping for jewelry, pashminas, hiking gear, prayer wheels, singing bowls, statues of Hindu gods and goddesses and countless other trinkets. Thamel is a shopper’s paradise. More aggressive salespeople follow you, promising that what they’re selling is “very cheap, very cheap.” Indra summarized his shopping advice, and made the salespeople go away, with four little words: “Very cheap, no need.”

“All Gods, Same Same.”

Until 2006, Nepal was a constitutionally declared Hindu state. About 80 percent of its population is Hindu, and about 10 percent is Buddhist. Indra took me to see the palace of Nepal’s own living goddess, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu. The Kumari — who has a sweet ride, pictured below — is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju or Durga. When the Kumari has her period, the goddess vacates her body. No one wants to be around PMS.

The three main gods of Hindu mythology are Vishnu (the Preserver), Brahma (the Creator) and Shiva (the Destroyer). They’re honored in the dozens of temples in Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, pictured below. Each god has a number of incarnations, along with a goddess-mate with her own incarnations. Parvati (shown below with Shiva), for example, is an incarnation of Shiva’s mate Shakti (the Mother of the World).

One of my favorite places in the Kathmandu Valley is the famous Buddhist temple and monastery Swayambhunath (literally the “place of the self-born”). It’s more commonly known as the Monkey Temple for its numerous furry inhabitants.

Buddha is believed to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu. After dozens of questions from me about Buddhist and Hindu gods, Indra advised me that, when it comes down to it, “All gods same same.” They and their wise followers all share a common goal: MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH.

Namaste, Kathmanduties!

Before and after Tibet, our travels took us to Nepal, a country the size of Alabama, bordered to the north by Tibet and to the south, east, and west by India. I fell in love with its capital, Kathmandu, whose citizens are called Kathmanduties, and their greeting of namaste. It’s the Nepalese aloha, a word used for “hello” and “goodbye” and not reserved for the end of yoga class like in the U.S. We arrived at the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu, the country’s only international airport. Between the signs in baggage claim and the marigold-lei greeting, my troll Aurora and I had a feeling we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We stayed at the Hotel Yak & Yeti at Durbar Marg in Kathmandu city. Located in a former Rana palace, the Yak & Yeti has gorgeous gardens, statues of Hindu gods (including my favorite, Ganesha, who helps to overcome obstacles), and framed quotes from the Bhagavad Gita in the guest rooms. It’s a little slice of heaven.

Our first evening was spent at a traditional Nepalese restaurant, enjoying many shots of rice wine and very good local beers. In Nepal, the red dots on our foreheads are called “tikas” and are a mixture of abir, a red powder, yoghurt and grains of rice.

We were entertained by Nepalese folk dancers. Aurora hung out with them afterwards.

The Kathmandu Valley includes Kathmandu city and several surrounding municipalities. It’s the cultural and political hub of Nepal and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. I was anxious to see Patan, also known as Lalitpur Sub-Metrolpolitan City. Founded in the third century B.C., Patan is renowned for its fine arts, particularly metal and stone works and wood carvings. Patan also contains many fine examples of nature’s own beauty, and the beauty of the Nepalese people.

Next post: The Wisdom of Indra (lessons learned from my Kathmandu guide)

Connect to Source Part 3: Iyengar Yoga

From meditation to journaling, we move now to the most active form of Connecting to Source: Iyengar yoga. After taking Iyengar yoga classes for more than 5 years, I’m still a beginner. This isn’t because I’m a bad student or have bad teachers. I’m still a beginner because Iyengar yoga conveys a wealth of information: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Many people think of yoga as physical exercise but, in it’s purest form, it’s an active meditation that coordinates body, breath and mental focus.

What Is Iyengar Yoga?

Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Born in 1918, and still actively practicing and teaching, Mr. Iyengar pioneered the use of props (blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, chairs, etc.) to help yoga practitioners perform asanas (different poses) with attention to details of correct physical alignment. Poses are held for longer duration while interrelationship of different parts of the body is studied and alignment is perfected.

Another key aspect of Iyengar yoga is the sequencing of asanas, which creates powerful cumulative effects. In an Iyengar class, you won’t have a “yoga bingo” type of experience (where the teacher randomly calls out names of asanas, as if they were popping up on balls in a bingo machine). Instead, the teacher purposefully sequences the asanas to impart particular lessons, and each class is unique.

Mr. Iyengar has written several classic texts on yoga, including Light of Yoga, Light on Pranayama (the science of breath), and The Tree of Yoga. As Mr. Iyengar explains in this last book:

“Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga. But this is too abstract a notion to be easily understood, so for our level of understanding I say that yoga is the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul….”

“Through the performance of asanas, I become totally involved and find oneness of body, mind and soul. For me, this is active meditation. Although asana is sometimes described as physical gymnastics, this is a quite mistaken description, because asana means pose, and after posing, reflecting and reposing. Asana is not just exercise….”

“You have to make an effort of understanding and observation. ‘Why am I getting pain at this moment? Why do I not get the pain at another moment or with another movement? What have I to do with this part of my body? What have I to do with that part? How can I get rid of the pain? Why am I feeling this pressure? Why is this side painful? How are the muscles behaving on this side and how are they behaving on the other side?

“You should go on analyzing, and by analysis you will come to understand. Analysis in action is required in yoga. …. You have to see what messages come from the fibres, the muscles, the nerves and the skin of the body while you are in the pose. Then you can learn.”

How Are Iyengar Yoga Teachers Trained?

What initially attracted me to Iyengar yoga, and keeps me coming back regularly for classes, is the quality of its teachers. Before I started practicing yoga, I had several very good personal trainers and I explored other physical disciplines like Pilates. My Iyengar teachers have taught me far more than anyone about my body and its problems, habits, weaknesses and strengths, and how to work to bring my body – and in the process, myself – into balance.

In The Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar emphasizes that “you have to work with a competent teacher to see why there is pain, what happens when you are doing which movements, what mistakes you are making in your postures, where the stress is when you are working, whether it is necessary to give stress to that point or whether it should be shifted elsewhere to nullify the pain.” Certified Iyengar teachers are beyond competent.

To begin Iyengar teacher training, you must have been a student for at least 3 years, attend at least 3 classes a week, and practice daily on your own. From there, you must complete at least 2 years of rigorous training for an introductory certificate. Subsequent intermediate and senior levels of certification are available. As stated on Mr. Iyengar’s website: “It is not just the ‘time’ or ‘years’ of practice that makes one eligible for a particular level of certification but the ‘quality’ of the practice.”

Manouso Manos, who holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted by Mr. Iyengar, previews what you can expect from an Iyengar teacher in class:

“Most of us think we can write the script of who our yoga teacher is but we can’t. Of course, you have to find a yoga teacher who speaks directly to your understanding. But that doesn’t mean that the yoga teacher should not be pushing your buttons once in a while, saying, ‘Hey, there’s a little more to this.’ You can’t structure the box of what your yoga practice is. In fact, yoga is, by definition, transformative. The joke that I tell, and I’m not the first one to say this, is that you cannot change and stay the same at the same time.

“And this is an example of what most of us want to do in a yoga class. Okay, I want to control this. I want to have this, I want to understand this and you’re not going to push my button. And the answer is, the yoga teacher should always push you into at least a minor state of discomfort. This will encourage you to move into a state where you’re willing to step out of that hard box that most of us are in, out of that control freak and that ego that tries to box us in.”

Yoga Samachar (IYNAUS newsletter), Fall 2011/Winter 2012 edition. “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.” In addition to being funny, that observation is pretty darn powerful!

How Do I Find An Iyengar Yoga Teacher Near Me?

A complete listing of Iyengar yoga teachers worldwide is available on Mr. Iyengar’s website. To search for Iyengar teachers in the U.S., go to the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga: National Association of the United States) website. I practice at Yoga Circle in downtown Chicago, where I take classes from two instructors who I love: Todd Howell and Bob Whittinghill. For a schedule of classes at Yoga Circle, click here.

Remember, as Mr. Iyengar points out in Tree of Yoga, “It is never too late in life to practice yoga.”

Connect to Source Part 2: Journaling

A more interactive way to “Connect to Source” than meditation (the subject of Connect to Source Part 1), journaling can be an extremely powerful tool to slow down and listen to your inner wisdom. I journal every Wednesday and Sunday morning, religiously. The answers that emerge when I take a pen in hand, ask hard questions, listen and let the thoughts flow in written form are often profound, and have helped steer my life in a positive direction. And let me tell you, it’s much cheaper than therapy!

In order to do justice to this important subject, I decided to see what others have written about journaling. That quest led me to two excellent books: Journalution by Sandy Grason, and Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner (who refers to what I call the Source as “the Voice”). Most of what follows is in their words, which are far more eloquent than mine.

Why Bother To Keep A Journal?

From Journalution:

“Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy asks Glinda the Good Witch how to get back to Kansas? Glinda tells Dorothy, ‘My dear, you’ve always had the power.’ We all have the power to create a life we love. But often, like Dorothy, we look in faraway places for our answers when the real answers are in our own backyard. It’s tempting to look outside ourselves for answers to life’s big questions. After all, if we could just read a book or go to a seminar and discover our true purpose, it would make things so much easier. While the answers that others have found may inspire you, ultimately you have to answer life’s big questions for yourself, and your journal is the best place to begin figuring out your hopes, dreams and visions. Think of your journal as your very own pair of ruby slippers.”

What If I Don’t Have Time And Energy For Journaling?

From Writing Down Your Soul:

“Writing is not something you have to do; it’s a gift you give yourself—the gift of stopping. Stop for just a moment and step off the busy, go-go, do-do, get-get train that we all ride all day, all week, all year. Stop for just a few minutes and talk with the Voice. Don’t worry that the train will speed ahead without you. Not only will you have no trouble getting back on, but you’ll also reboard with new answers, new clarity, new energy, and a smattering of fresh, new hope.”

What If I’m Not A Good Writer?

From Writing Down Your Soul:

“The best way to push your editor aside is to write fast—really, really fast…. Don’t bother with endings or punctuation or quotation marks or anything that slows you down. Don’t worry about writing correctly—just focus on having a conversation. Because that’s what deep soul writing is—a conversation. It happens to take place in written form, but it doesn’t have to meet any of the criteria of teacher-approved ‘good’ writing. No one sees what you have written but you and the Voice, and the Voice doesn’t care about your grammar, punctuation or spelling.”

What Should I Write About?

Both Journalution and Writing Down Your Soul contain loads of ideas or “prompts” for journal entries. But once you start asking questions about your life and listening for answers, you’ll find an endless source of things to write about. In Grason’s words:

“Begin by asking, ‘What should I do?’ Tell this higher being everything that’s on your mind. Get your problems and concerns out on the page. Rant and rave and ask all the hard questions that are driving you mad. Get rid of them so that you can stop focusing on them. Then take a breath and listen. An answer will be there. Don’t judge it, just write it.”

How Do I Get Started?

From Journalution:

“You don’t have to wait for something big and wonderful to happen in your life in order to start writing. Just begin writing, right now.”

***

“Your journal will help you keep peace in your soul. It will be your guide. It will open your heart and reveal your dreams. You only have to pick up a pen and begin writing.”

While journaling is ultimately about sitting down and putting your thoughts and inner wisdom on paper (or in some electronic form of writing), reading Journalution or Writing Down Your Soul are excellent ways to get started. If you already journal, these books will make the experience even more rewarding. So pick up a pen and paper and create your own pair of beautiful and magical ruby slippers to take you on a journey to the answers to your life’s big questions!

Connect to Source Part 1: Meditation

Shortly after turning 40, I visited my brother Gary at his home in Tucson, Arizona. A retired homicide detective turned personal trainer, Gary has served as a sort of “life coach” for me, giving me nuggets of advice at critical points in my life. During one of our hikes in the mountains surrounding Tucson, I asked Gary what he thought I needed to improve about myself. He said I should work on my spirituality.

After having focused for years on law school and then representing Wall Street clients (the infamous one percent), I knew he was right. Gary’s comment started me on a journey to find ways to connect to the higher power (what some might call God) and my inner wisdom. I think of these things collectively as “the Source.”

This is the first of a three-part series about practices that have helped me “Connect to Source”, starting with inactive (meditation), to more active (journaling), to a melding of the mind and body (Iyengar yoga). Cultivating these practices has been transformative: it has given me a much greater degree of calmness of mind, self-understanding, clarity on life’s purpose and direction, compassion, and better psychological and physical health. And we all need those things to make it in today’s stressful world!

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler says that: “In our spiritual journey, it’s important for each of us to decide whether a particular practice is appropriate for us. Sometimes a practice will not appeal to us initially, and before it can be effective, we need to understand it better.” I hope this series will help those who are looking to connect to Source find and better understand a practice or two that may work for them.

Why Meditation?

It may seem like a trendy, “new age” thing, but the practice of meditation is ancient. I think people are turning to meditation in droves these days because of the overload of information and thoughts bombarding us from all of today’s media and technology, which invoke stress or the “fight or flight” response. We all need a few moments each day to turn off the laptop, iPhone and Blackberry and have some “quiet time” to destress and reconnect to our true selves.

And that is what meditation provides. During meditation, your body shifts into a state of restful awareness, which is a counterbalance to the “fight or flight” response. You experience a decreased heart rate, reduced stress hormones, quiet breathing and strengthened immunity. When you regularly activate restful awareness through meditation, you experience these and other physical and psychological benefits.

Productive Meditation

Ultimately, as explained in The Art of Happiness At Work, your meditation practice will benefit not only you but all of the people in your life:

“Genuine progress occurs when the individual not only sees some results in achieving higher levels of meditative states but also when their meditation has at least some influence on how they interact with others, some impact from that meditation in their daily life—more patience, less irritation, more compassion. That’s productive meditation. Something that can bring benefit to others in some way.”

Primordial Sounds And Other Mantras

My meditation practice began at a “Perfect Health” week at the Chopra Center near San Diego, which was a wonderful and memorable experience. The Chopra Center gives instruction in primordial sound meditation, a technique rooted in the Vedic tradition of India. A primordial sound is a type of mantra consisting of three sounds or vibrations, the first being “Om”, the third being “Namah”, and the second being one of 100 primordial sounds based on the time and place of your birth. A primordial sound mantra might be, for example, Om Bijah Namah.

These words have no particular meaning and are used as a tool to interrupt the flow of meaningful thoughts. Silently repeating your mantra in meditation helps you slip into the space between your thoughts, sometimes referred to as “the gap”, and expand to quieter, more abstract levels of the mind. If you don’t have a primordial sound mantra, you could just as easily use Om Mani Padme Hum (a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion).

What If I Can’t Get My Mind To Be Quiet?

A common misperception about meditation is that you should be in “the gap” the entire time. But meditation isn’t about trying to force your mind to be quiet. It’s an effortless, non-judgmental process to rediscover the quietness that’s already there, behind our internal dialogue that keeps our mind in a state of turbulence.

Many thoughts arise during meditation, and your mind drifts and wanders. Just observe this happening and return to your mantra. The instructors at the Chopra Center assured us that even Deepak’s mind wonders during meditation, from what he’s going to say on his next appearance with Oprah to the topic of his next book. Then he gently returns to his mantra. For me, the few moments of silent spaces between my thoughts during meditation are precious glimpses of inner quietness and expanded awareness. I think of them as the time when I get quiet and let God speak to me, which is a more pure form of “prayer” than telling God what I want.

No Rules, Just Guidelines

There are no “rules” to meditating, but here are some guidelines to help you get started:

  • It’s generally better to meditation sitting up, since lying down is associated with sleep.
  • It’s best to close your eyes, since keeping our eyes open draws our attention outward.
  • The best times to meditate are first thing in the morning, before breakfast, and late afternoon or early evening. At the Chopra Center, these two times were memorably described to us as “RPM” (rise, pee, meditate), and “RAD” (right after dinner).
  • Try to meditate for 30 minutes. You may need to start with 10 or 15 minutes, and work your way up to 30. Meditate for whatever time you have.

You can think about it, talk about it, and read about it, but unless you do it, you won’t experience the benefits of meditation. So whether it’s RPM or RAD, get started  (or recommit to) your meditation practice today.

“I Am”

Tom Shadyac is a writer/director/producer of some very funny movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (with Jim Carrey), The Nutty Professor (with Eddie Murphy) and Bruce Almighty (with Steve Carrell). But my favorite film of his is a documentary entitled I Am, in which Shadyac asks some of today’s most profound thinkers and doers (scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists, philosophers) two questions: What’s wrong with the world, and what can we do about it?

The Shift Hits The Fan

What caused Shadyac to shift from talking butt cheeks in Ace Ventura to a film about human connectedness, happiness and the human spirit? It was a cycling accident that left him with severe injuries, from which he ultimately recovered. Shadyac’s brush with death motivated him to want to share with the world what he’d come to know about the ultimate emptiness of the “swimming pools and movie stars” life he’d lived in Beverly Hills.

Shadyac came to realize that owning multimillion-dollar homes filled with expensive belongings and flying on private jets didn’t make him happy. He sold his homes, gave away many of his possessions and downsized in a major way. He now operates under the philosophy of using only what you need.

While that approach may seem revolutionary, I Am underscores the fact that nothing in nature takes more than its share Man is the only creature that does that. Many cultures throughout history have viewed taking more than you need as a form of insanity.

Unquestionably Happier

In an interview with Esquire magazine, Shadyac explains that the shift he underwent has made him “unquestionably happier”:

“The word contentment comes from the word content, which is what we hold inside – love, value, a feeling of a life that has a meaning or purpose, a cause greater than yourself that you’re a part of. These are the things that bring true happiness. As a culture, I think we need to redefine what it means to be happy.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody how to live. After my accident, I didn’t want to die with these ideas buried inside of me, so I felt compelled to make this movie to share what I had come to know. Hopefully, if it touches people in some way, they can consider their own lives and how it may affect their walk. I want to be part of the solution. But no pressure.”

I Am isn’t just about owning less stuff. It explores the interconnectedness among all living things, and the fascinating science that underpins and explains how what we do every day, how we treat people, matters. Without giving away any surprises, some of my favorite scenes involve random number generators being impacted by human emotions, and Shadyac’s negative emotions affecting bacteria in a bowl of yogurt.

Watch It

Take some time (1 hour and 16 minutes, to be exact) from your busy schedule to watch I Am. It’s a beautiful, funny and inspirational film. You’ll be a better person for having seen it. Here, in three parts on You Tube, is Shadyac’s amazing documentary, I Am:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QVd7ULdh4w&feature=relmfu

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rg72DjcvlyE&feature=relmfu

What parts of I Am did you find the most impactful or memorable?

The Art Of Happiness At Work

For the past few years, I’ve been in a state of sustained dreadfulness at work, since witnessing a friend and co-worker get callously fired and escorted out a week before Christmas. Despite repeatedly reminding myself that I’m lucky to have a job in this economic environment, I’ve grown increasingly unhappy and grumpy at work. And like many people these days, my ability to move elsewhere for a job is hampered by being a homeowner in today’s horrendous real estate market.

Practicing Compassion Instead Of Cashing In My 401(k)

Feeling trapped in a bad place, after a particularly bad day at the office (the kind when you contemplate quitting and cashing in your 401k), I implored the universe to help me: if there’s a lesson I’m meant to learn from this situation, please show me what it is. The next day, I ran across The Art Of Happiness At Work, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, M.D.

The book contains important lessons about applying Buddhist philosophy to transform dissatisfaction with work in the Western world. The lesson I needed is that happiness at work doesn’t begin by finding a “nirvana” job free from tormentors and tyrants. It begins by turning inward and reshaping my own attitudes and outlook.

I had grown so disillusioned with how people are treated at the workplace that I had checked out as a human being. I was just doing the work expected of me and collecting a paycheck until I found an escape hatch. The Dalai Lama teaches that this is not the route to happiness:

“[I]f we are discussing happiness and satisfaction at work, like in all human activities, the human factor—how we relate to those around us, our coworkers, our customers, our boss—is of prime importance. And I think if we make a special effort to cultivate good relationships with people at work, get to know the other people, and bring our basic human qualities to the workplace, that can make a tremendous difference. Then, whatever kind of work we do, it can be a source of satisfaction. Then you look forward to going to work, and you are happier there. You think, Oh, I’m going to work to see my friends today!

He emphasizes that “we should take special care to pay attention to the human relationships at work, how we interact with one another, and try to maintain basic human values, even at work…. Just basic human goodness. Be a good person, a kind person. Relate to others with warmth, human affection, with honest and sincerity. Compassion.”

Gee, That Sounds Familiar

The Dalai Lama’s co-author, Dr. Cutler (a psychiatrist), weaves real-life examples into The Art Of Happiness At Work to illustrate these points. One story from a senior editor at a publishing house really hit home:

“I have to start with the irritation I feel when I have to answer a nagging question from a co-worker. I have to appreciate that person as someone who also has a job to do and whose needs are at least as important, if not more so, than my own. Then I can take some satisfaction in the fact that because of my job I’ve been able to help clear someone else’s confusion….

“So then I can see the purpose of my job is really to help alleviate suffering. But it’s not easy to maintain. I slip into ‘burnout’ all the time. It’s a mind-training exercise that I have to engage in all the time. And crabbiness at work is the sign that I need to do it again, and again, until one day the feeling just comes naturally, spontaneously….”

What About The Tormentors And Tyrants?

Of course, training my mind to be more kind and compassionate doesn’t make the tormentors and tyrants disappear. But as the Dalai Lama explains, those individuals provide us with chances to improve ourselves:

“[T]here are some people who have an interest in spirituality, those people who are trying to train their minds, to cultivate spiritual values like compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness. Now, for those people, they may use these challenging situations as part of their spiritual practice, and view situations where there are conflicts with difficult co-workers as opportunities to practice these wonderful human qualities, to strengthen these spiritual values. I think it is a wonderful thing if one can use one’s place of work as a place of spiritual practice as well.”

Lasting Happiness 24/7

The Art Of Happiness At Work helped me see that I can’t have a happy life unless I relate to others with warmth, human affection, sincerity and compassion in my personal life and in my professional life: “When you appreciate the interconnected nature of all aspects of your life, then you will understand how various factors—such as your values, your attitudes, your emotional state—can all contribute to your sense of fulfillment at work, and to your satisfaction and happiness in life.” Practicing these seemingly simple lessons in recent weeks has had a transformative impact on my life, in and out of the workplace.

Does this mean that I plan to stay in my current job for the rest of my working life? No. But while I’m there, I’ll use the experience as a tool to reshape my outlook and attitudes, to integrate basic human values at the office, to reduce my anger and hostility and cultivate the opposing mental states of kindness, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. In Dr. Cutler’s words, “true happiness may take longer to generate, and requires some effort, but it is this lasting happiness that can sustain us even under the most trying conditions of everyday life.”

You can get a copy of The Art of Happiness At Work on Amazon. It’s not currently available as an e-book, but I prefer to have a hard copy anyway. I keep it on my desk at work as a reminder of the important lessons it contains!