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The Art of Happiness

At a recent peace gathering in Jakarta hosted by the organic restaurant Burgreens, I saw a talk by holistic healing practitioner and acupuncturist Reza Gunawan, who is also the husband of the popular author Dee Lestari. Reza’s talk was about the practice of happiness, inspired by the recent research of American neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

 

The argument is an interesting one – our brains are hardwired to survive, not to be happy. Unfortunately, the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences; we have evolved to have a negative bias in order to survive and learn from our threats, predators or hazards. When we avoid these threats we are in ‘reactive mode’, however we are often still dwelling on the negatives. Yet Dr. Hanson does not recommend ‘positive thinking’ in order to counteract this, since a positive statement is just verbal and doesn’t create new neural structure, it hasn’t sunk in. To develop this structure and create a sense of happiness, practice is needed. Hanson calls this ‘taking in the good’. This means that if we experience something positive, we should take the time (around 10-30 seconds) to acknowledge these experiences so that it becomes part of the neural structure. 

Ka Mau

In other words, we are learning the art of being grateful and becoming more present. But this is a self-healing pathway and it requires patience, time and practice – it is not an instant spoonful of medicine from a doctor, but a life-long journey.

“I help people in Jakarta to learn to self-heal,” explained Reza Gunawan who has been a healer for over 11 years. He started as an investment banker, but his illnesses and spiritual experiences led him to abandon this path and pursue his childhood passion for healing. During his talk at the peace gathering, I was particularly impressed by how he managed to find common ground and use examples that everyone in the audience would be able to identify with; deep down, we have a desire to be at peace, regardless of our spiritual, philosophical or religious beliefs and Reza’s talk was very inclusive – everyone in the audience seemed to be engaged and were speaking honestly about their own personal experiences in life. Reza was clear to explain that although he performs acupuncture, he cannot ‘heal’. The journey to self-heal, he believes, is a personal commitment, and there are many practices for happiness that Reza teaches.

“I think the main practices are mindfulness practices, which are aimed to develop clear thinking (clarity), kindness and wisdom; emotional healing practices, which are aimed to recognize our patterns of suffering, and becoming free from them; embodiment practices, which are body-based integration practices to carry and oscillate the clear awareness from the mental side into the physical life; personal habits and rhythms, to wisely manage our most regular roles and tasks in such a way that keeps our life in good healthy balance,” Reza explained.

With a negative bias, even if our brains experience something positive, we may still feel unhappy and life in an urban city can often be hard with its extra stresses, such as work pressure, traffic and pollution. But instead of dwelling on the negatives, there are numerous things that we can do.

“Learn to stop and breathe, would be the most important tip. Being too busy, tired and stressed are the culprit of almost all diseases in modern life,” said Reza who is keen to spread more awareness about more natural, conscious and healthier ways in which to live.

Multi-disciplined artist Ka Mau from San Francisco recently reiterated the point in his novel GODBODY that the search for peace must begin within the mind, to begin observing our thoughts and those of others in order to learn. Yet his book also warns us to be careful of stagnation, “Sometimes a raw, spontaneous, unedited show of heart and imperfection can get you all the results you seek.” In fact, Ka Mau actively aims to help artists to become more open and push themselves out of their comfort zone through his performance events, Live Mysteries, which aim to unify artists, painters, poets, dancers, videographers and photographers across Bali and break down the walls that separate us. And anyone can come.

I recently asked Ka Mau if he had any advice for people wishing to become more open and expressive. “Become good friends with people who do things that you do not do, who think in ways that you do not think, who create in ways that you do not create. Go to places you’ve never gone, where there are people you’ve never interacted with. Bali provides a wealth of opportunities to do that. Strike up real conversations with some of the people there. Not to prove a point or to show what you know, but to just hear different outlooks and experiences of life. Look for and listen to people with far out views, whether you agree with them or not, just listen to the perspectives. When someone comes into your circle who is nothing like the others around you, spark the conversation. The more you can do this, the more your comfort zone will expand,” said Ka Mau.

Although cities are often jam-packed with people, there are many cases of loneliness and alienation. Everyone has skills and knowledge that are important for achieving balance in our society, yet a lack of confidence may prevent people from recognizing or appreciating their gifts. I asked Ka Mau if he had any advice to encourage more supportive environments in which people can share their knowledge. “I feel it is 100% essential that people share their knowledge and skills with others, especially those who may not have easy access to it. I think apprenticeships are a wonderful thing that should make a comeback in societies. It’s a lost part of community. Every person who has high knowledge and skill in a given field should have at least one dedicated young person they transfer that learning to without charging them for it. I think whether or not someone does that depends on how they perceive themselves and their own work, as well as what are the reasons why they do what they do,” said Ka Mau.

So, whether you have something to learn, or something to share, remember how important you are, even if the brain can be a miserable old engine at times and in need of a bit of oil.

 

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