Friday, December 9, 2011

The poverty line of happiness…

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Follows is my Toasmaster speech which I am doing next week as a key note:

In the world bank global poverty indicators, the poverty headcount ratio is at $1.25 a day (PPP)
(% of population) 41.7% in 1990 to 25.2% in 2005.  As more and more people come out of physical poverty they are faced with a different type of poverty, a poverty of mental happiness.

In an interview the following dialog takes place between Oprah and the Dalai Lama:
Oprah: Though many Americans have read your book about happiness, some still don't understand how to achieve it. How can someone attain true happiness in a culture that emphasizes materialism? 

Dalai Lama: Even when a person has all of life's comforts—good food, good shelter, a companion—he or she can still become unhappy when encountering a tragic situation. Physical comforts cannot subdue mental suffering, and if we look closely we can see that those who have many possessions are not necessarily happy. In fact, being wealthy often brings even more anxiety. On the other hand, those who don't have a life filled with luxury may have a home filled with compassion, based on their choice to be content and to practice self-discipline. Even when we have physical hardships, we can be very happy.

Oprah: So happiness begins in our minds?

Dalai Lama: Yes. That's why mental happiness is more important than physical comfort. Physical comfort comes from the material. But material facilities cannot provide you with peace of mind.
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According to NIH, at least 1 in 4 Americans suffer from some sort of mental health problem every year.  

Is this what we want to bring the rest of the world into? by lifting them out of a poverty of physical needs to a poverty of mental health.  Do we just replace one set of suffering with a different more difficult set of suffering to solve?

Here is some interesting research from Harvard university that used an IPhone app to randomly sample people (embedded video) shows when we actually feel happy in our daily life…

Mean happiness reported during each activity
(top) and while mind wandering to unpleasant
topics, neutral topics, pleasant topics or not
mind wandering (bottom). Dashed line indicates
mean of happiness across all samples. Bubble area
indicates the frequency of occurrence. The largest
bubble (“not mind wandering”) corresponds to
53.1% of the samples, and the smallest bubble
(“praying/worshipping/meditating”) corresponds to
0.1% of the samples.

If we have a look at this chart it gives us some interesting insights, things that we think may give us joy, actually don’t make us happy at all, or only slightly happy, rest, working, home computer, grooming, watching TV, yet it seems that this is where spend most of our time.

The other big insight that this research shows us is that we are most happiest when we are devoted to one thing at a time, how often do you think that happens in todays environment, 80%, 50%, 10%? look at your own minds what percentage of your time is your mind not wandering? is it present in your what you are doing right now, not the in the past or future?

So if you want to be more happy what do you think you should be doing or rather not doing (not mind wandering, if you did this 1/2 of the time you would be less stress, a lot more happier half of the time. 

There are specific training that can help you do this, typically based on Zen principles of mindfulness, being in the present moment, non-attachment, compassion, simplicity, meditation.

This speech does not give me much time to go through various aspects Zen teachings, however I would like to tell a simple story that illustrates many aspects of these ancient attitudes that are mostly forgotten in the modern world which leads to suffering.

A monk was travelling with his student, both had vowed a oath of celibacy, until they came to a river, there was a beautiful woman at the edge, who was lavishly dressed to go to a wedding, however the bridge between the shallow river had been broken, the young student monk, being the stronger and faster one, walking ahead got to the river first, and asked what was the problem.

The young woman, asked “I need to go to a wedding, but I cannot ruin my dress, could you  kindly lift here across the shallow water, I will give you some money for that”,  The young monk thinking about what his master would say exclaimed “Oh no, I cannot do that, we as monks are not supposed to touch a woman, and my master will be very upset”

The master arrived and asked what was the problem, the young monk exclaimed righteously how the young woman was trying to “corrupt” him by asking him to taking him across the river.  The old master upon hearing this gestured to the woman “may I”, and lifted her up with a clean swoop, the woman wrapped her arms around him in the fear off being dropped.  

On reaching the other side, the women took out some coins, and gave it to the master, the master said “kindness is not kindness if it demands a price”, departing the woman gave him a affectionate hug, and made her way.

They walked to the monastery, and the young man was upset for various reasons, one how could the master be such a hypocrite, secretly he also wished he got the same attention from the woman, as she was very beautiful.

The Master now moving on from his gracious deed, had forgotten about it, in enjoying every second of the beautiful scenery of the mountain along the way, he was hummed a folk song, felt the cool breeze caressing his bald head, while the young student was roasting in the fire of his emotions…

The student could not take it any more, and he demanded an explanation “Master, how can you touch a woman? we are taught not to give attention to such things, how could you carry her”

The master paused thoughtfully and then replied “Well, I left her at the river 4 hours ago, you on the other hand still seem to be carrying her”

So the poverty of happiness is real, the line exists, to move on the right side of the line, involves a shift in attitudes, discipline, and it pays off in real joy, it seems that the modern comforts of today and the things that we think make us happy don’t actually make us happy at all and a major factor of happiness is being in the present moment.

There are ancient practices like Zen and Meditation, which are probably more relevant in today’s stressful life then ever, if we cultivate and practice this self disciple, we will live happier lives, and this happiness will extend to those around us. at home, at work…if everyone starts doing this on a global scale, the world will be a kinder, more compassionate place for our future generations to enjoy…

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