Cultivating Happiness by Going Back to the Breath.

When I first stepped into a yoga studio, I was not in search of an awakening of sorts. I was twenty and I had not started the search for my life’s purpose or meaning. I wasn’t even aware that I had yet to find my true self. In a way, Yoga was the one who found me, and has been creeping into life’s little crevices ever since, teaching me that only one thing keeps us fully alive, that which is our life source: the breath.

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I attended my first yoga class to support a best friend from high school , J. Lowe,  (pictured above and throughout this post) who just discovered yoga and was teaching her first class. A third bestie completed our trio and we brought along Mike and a roommate of his. I saw the class solely as an exercise routine. Although we were being reminded throughout class to return to our breath, I was too busy concentrating on the sweat dripping down from my forehead to my toes, causing me to slip and slide from my mat like a waterslide laid out amidst summer grass. My mind, a restless wanderer, was constantly wondering whether anyone was looking at me and what they thought of my stance. I was shy of my newbie skill set and the inability to hold postures as gracefully as some of the other swans in the room. I was exhausted ten minutes in, and realized that I didn’t have a single thread of muscle in my puny body. I kept wondering when the hour would be up, looking forward to eating something soon, despite the late hour. I thought that this would be way easier, if only I didn’t have bangs. I was looking around to see what posture to hold, what everyone was wearing, how my friends were faring.

At that point in my life, I had what they call a monkey mind. All these thoughts that had nothing to do with the yoga itself kept barging in and disrupting me and my process. Accompanied with these thoughts were a collection of emotions. Shyness, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, tiredness, empathy, embarrassment, anger, happiness, restlessness, hunger, to name a few and not necessarily in that order. It was an accurate representation of what my life was, a mirrored reflection of a million particles squeezed into a tiny space and creating tumultuous friction as they collided and fought for my attention.

A chase is a word I so lovingly use to describe my past lifestyle. Fast forward a few years later, where I started to do a bit of soul searching to answer one main question. How can I find happiness? I started with the question, “What will make me happy?” and I didn’t stop asking follow up questions. Even now, I still haven’t stopped.

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If you ask somebody what will make them happy, they may say, money will make me happy. Okay why money? Because I will have the ability to pay for food on the table. Okay why food? Because I want to go through every day knowing that I won’t go hungry. Okay why don’t you want to go hungry? Because I don’t want to suffer or feel pain. What will make you feel pain? Being constricted. What else will make you feel constricted? A work schedule, a timeline, expectations… and so on and so forth. And when you strip it down to the barest ingredient, what I found in all my answers was that external forces, things you cannot control, those are what causes a majority of our negative emotions. These external causes of unhappiness include material goods, status, pressures, expectations, and so on. Internal forces, those that we can control because they are inside of us, are the weapons with which we can yield and carve and create our own happiness. They say that happiness comes from within, and I wholly believe in that. I write all the time about how all these things we try to purchase and achieve and accomplish, maybe they will bring us happiness, momentarily, but that happiness will fade. And like some addicting drug, you will then need more to trigger that happiness again, and then even more. The chase will have you wasting your life away trying to find a happiness that is temporary, when you can slow life down and find happiness that is constant.

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As with the yoga example, the external forces are what create a majority of our discomfort on and off the mat. When I was first learning the poses, I would remember being uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of having pain, in some of the more advanced body configurations. What was even worse, was the narrative that quickly followed that pain. My monkey mind would ask me questions like, “What am I doing here?”, “There’s no way you can make it until the end of the class”, “Everybody is watching you fail”, “You’ll never get to be as good as them”, etc. And with that story comes the emotions listed above. As those emotions got triggered, the physical pain would actually feel worse, solely because it is perceived as larger than what it truly is, after being brought to the forefront of the mind. Much of the suffering comes from the emotions we tie to the actions, rather than the action itself. It’s the story that kills us. Slowly, over time, I developed a way to let these thoughts go, which then allowed me to control the amount of suffering there was. Once I let the narrative float by, like clouds, or the thoughts run through, like water, I became more able to sit in those positions with a feeling of groundedness, or contentment. There is a sense of peace that comes with letting things go and returning to the breath, focusing on the one thing that really matters in our life. I learned so much from this lesson than any other lesson about what it really means to be a human being.

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“There are inevitably going to be these pains that arise, whether they are physical, emotional, loss of a loved one, things not going exactly as you want them to go. But the story that we layer on top of that… that actually creates a more intense layer of suffering that can impede this deeper layer of happiness that we are often looking for.”                                                                                            -Corey Muscara

Do you ever notice how a lot of tension in our lives come from the resistance towards things that are happening to us? Instead of pushing back, trying to reshape what happens, forcing control over situations, try to just let it happen. Once I got into that space, I started to really feel free. It was not that everything became one hundred percent perfect, la-dee-da in my life. There were still days when I felt tired, when Mike and I had different viewpoints, when money seemed to control everything, when I had an explosion of emotions, and when my thoughts continued to be all over the place, but my relationship towards everything has shifted to a place of disconnect from these external factors, and somehow, I ended up more grounded. Imagine being tied down to all of these things when the hypothetical tornado hits. These things will just fly up in the air, and you along with it. But to be fully free from it means that you will find an easier time planting your feet solidly on the ground. The ability to watch a whirlwind of life’s surprises pass you by without being swayed is a superpower that we have, but we fail to cultivate. I have found only one way of strengthening that power, and that is to return to the breath.

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To try, at home.

Try to sit cross-legged in a room for even five minutes and focus on your breath. If this is the first time you are trying this, it will be very difficult. Your mind will wander through a rabbit hole, and may possibly never come back. But try to allow these thoughts to simply pass. Practice letting it go and coming back to the breath every time.

Do this at least once a day when your space and mind is clear. I do this while going through a flow in my living room in the early mornings, as the sun peaks through our glass door. Usually, it’s after my roommate and Mike have left, so that the space is quiet and still. Typically, I prefer to do this prior to work, just to clear my head and reap all the benefits. Sometimes, it’s good to come back to in the evenings before bed, just to let everything go. Whatever works for your schedule will be fine.

It has taken me years to get to the point I am at now, but it is still nowhere close to the point I want to be. I have an outlandish dream of being ordained as a monk at some point in my life, and while that seems too crazy to come to fruition, I try in my everyday life to at least be a bit better at letting go. While I am not writing this as a way to get all hippie on you, I am hoping that sharing this experience will (even minutely) increase happiness in the world.

For flows from my friend J. Lowe, check out her YouTube channel or subscribe to her newsletters.

Living Slow: Creatively Escaping Mental Clutter

Raise your hand if you were born with a brain that never stops thinking. Aren’t we all these days? Most of the time, I find myself constantly wondering about what is going to happen next, what I need to accomplish, where I plan to go, what goals I set for myself. I am constantly planning for the future, and when I am not, I am constantly reminiscing on the past.

We are taught from a very young age that in order to be successful, you have to make a plan to get there. We are also instilled with a sense of attachment to things that have passed, because we assign emotions to events, people, and things. Very few of us are taught to notice the present for what it is now. For example, try to sit still, close your eyes, and focus all your attention on the present moment. I bet it takes less than a minute for your mind to wander to something in the past or in the future. When you do realize you’re thinking of this, can you let the thought pass you and return to the present moment? Can you accept the fact that your leg is itching because you’ve been sitting still for so long, and not reach out to scratch it? Can you just observe and continue observing and do absolutely nothing?

For me, this is a very difficult task. There is only one thing that could remove me from my constant state of agitation and longing, and that is creativity. I find that when I do something creative, the part of my brain that is constantly doing calculations shuts off temporarily. I first noticed this when I was a teenager, and I used to draw and do art. I would start dabbling in the middle of the afternoon on my sketchpad and not even realize that it has turned dark until I finish my work or someone snaps me out of my reverie. The same thing happens when I sing or try to play music. I could sing for hours and not even realize how much time has gone by. Sometimes, after spending hours singing, the part of my brain that is measuring my success in terms of achievements turns back on and makes me feel angry at myself for “wasting” so much time. We are so ingrained to measure our worth in terms of how much our salary is, how many titles and medals we have received, how many things we have accumulated, how many relationships we form, that we forget to create anything for ourselves, or rather, to create anything at all.

Now I am at a point in my journey where I have de-cluttered most of my possessions, removed unhealthy relationships, and allocated the appropriate amount of time to the things that add value to my life. However, after ridding my life of a lot of the excess noise, I have been left with a LOT of time left to my disposal. Prior to now, my entire life has been a race against time. I was raised to always seek achievements and had so many activities to the point where I was constantly over-whelmed in middle school and high school. I worked three jobs during my undergraduate career and still finished undergrad in three years with cum laude honors. There was never enough time to do everything I wanted to do while I was going to dental school because of the dedication it required. This is the first time in my life that I have extra time to use however I want to. Part of what gave me that freedom is really the appropriate allocation of my resources towards the things that really matter. This practice has given me plenty of time to reflect and day dream, which helps focus my attention to who I was and who I want to be. However, neither reflection nor daydreaming allows me to fully appreciate the present moment, since both require my mind to be either in the past or in the future. What I’ve found is that tapping into my creativity is the only thing that releases me from this cage of constantly assessing and re-assessing. Even if the creation is only for myself, only creativity allows me to enjoy the present moment wholly and completely.

Some may argue that if you work hard now, you will have more time in the future to be creative, but that isn’t necessarily true. This may be true if you are extrapolating in a certain way so that everything happening now is occurring or improving at a constant rate. But the question which I always use to judge what is right for me to do today is, “What things would I regret not doing if I were to die tomorrow?” As morbid as that sounds, it accounts for the single truth, which is that we are only guaranteed the present moment, and nothing more. If you spend your life working hard, looking forward to the rest of forever and forever never comes, then you just spent your life working hard and that is it. You would have accomplished much, but whether or not what you accomplished or created has any meaning past earning money or acquiring a certain status is questionable. And even if we assume you get to a later stage in life where you had once expected to spend every waking moment doing what you love, what if you couldn’t? What if a debilitating disease capable of preventing you from playing a musical instrument or creating art takes over your body? What if you suffer from an unpredictable accident? I can tell you one thing. There are many more things in life other than work that I would feel empty without. These happen to be the only things capable of diminishing the mental clutter to nothingness. Creativity is my antidote towards the incessant firing of neurons, the constant buzzing of notifications, and the little voice inside my head telling me, “You are not enough.” We are all enough.

This isn’t to say we should all stop planning our futures completely and solely be creative beings. Under-stimulation and lack of progress does not improve your life meaning. This is only to say there should be a balance. So press pause, and enjoy the now. In the end our life, fully lived, will be our best work.