The word alone has so many connotations, impressions, and assumptions attached to it.
For many, it may be India’s spiritual wealth that attracts them. It could be the colorful cultural terrain that inspires wanderlust.
The stunning array of architecture, food, art, and music on offer in India is breathtaking.
Pursuing one field of knowledge could satiate someone’s curiosity for a lifetime.
This is the thing about India: because it is such a patchwork of cultures, beliefs, and traditions, it is an excellent mirror for the world itself.
I am lucky enough to have made two trips to India with my girlfriend, who is a Mumbai native. This naturally lent itself to a unique experience of the country, because I essentially had a tour guide who could translate and fill me in on the history and cultural significance of certain places that I otherwise would have missed.
When I arrived in India, I had no expectations. I did, however, have a lot of “Western” perceptions about happiness, success, and enlightenment that were about to be completely challenged, and, in some cases, destroyed.
These are 3 discoveries I made about happiness while traveling in India:
I hope you gain some benefit from the following stories and reflections! Enjoy.
“Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.” — Dale Carnegie
When we pulled in to Ainapur, Karnataka, the entire village was dancing. They were celebrating the beginning of Ganpati, and this meant that all work was temporarily on hold. The musical instruments were out, as were the brightly colored saris.
Our path to the architectural site we were visiting was blocked by the villagers, so we stopped the car and piled out, happy to walk rather than disrupt their festivities.
I braced myself for the stares. At this point I was used to the smoldering, calculating gazes offered to me in exchange for my “otherness”. This was a different situation, because these villagers had probably seen very few foreigners in their lives, and I had no idea what their assumptions might be.
I felt like an intruder, bearing witness to a tradition so far outside my realm of experience and comprehension that I could feel myself withdrawing into a shell of silent indifference.
The entire crowd stopped their festivities and turned to look at us. Tension was thick in the air. A hundred eyes were on me — scanning, searching… Judging?
I felt the familiar tightness of self-consciousness grip me, and I nearly succumbed to the desire to simply avert my eyes and fade into the background.
Instead, the above Dale Carnegie quote surfaced in my mind, and I decided to take the leap. I stepped forward and started beaming. I brought my hands into prayer position and offered a head wobble (a universal gesture in India, used for almost every kind of exchange).
“Namaskar,” I projected in a voice stronger than how I felt. My smile was audible.
The reaction was instant and miraculous. It was as though a switch had been flipped, and the calculating, borderline aggressive expressions on the villager’s faces broke into transcendent smiles. They suddenly moved forward as one, all wanting to greet me and touch me and shake my hand. In a matter of seconds, a simple smile had transformed the situation entirely.
The leader of the village ended up inviting us into the square, where he arranged for a group of musicians to play for us. He offered us food and drink and brought us into the temple. We danced and sang in the square, and by the time we left, I felt as though I’d made some genuine connections, despite the language barrier. I’ll never forget the excited looks on the faces of the children who kept coming back to shake my hand and ask me where I was from.
I was still a stranger in a strange land, but a simple smile had shifted the entire experience, and I can honestly say that this short time spent in Ainapur was one of the highlights of my life.
Imagine if I hadn’t smiled!
The takeaway of this story is that we do not only influence the way people perceive us when we smile, but we actually change our internal reality and make ourselves more receptive to positive experiences.
If there’s a situation where a smile can make life better, it probably will.
If you smile, life will smile back.
2. Nothing Exists Outside of This Moment
“ In the stillness of your presence, you can feel your own formless and timeless reality as the unmanifested life that animates your physical form. You can then feel the same life deep within every other human and every other creature. You look beyond the veil of form and separation. This is the realization of oneness. This is love.” — Eckhart Tolle
This was a powerful realization that came to me during my first excursion to rural India. After having spent about 10 days traveling in Mumbai and Pune, my girlfriend took me to her hometown of Matheran — a beautiful village situated on top of a lush plateau in the countryside of Maharashtra.
After driving up the winding, one-lane road, we parked the car and walk about a mile along some train tracks to reach the village. Vehicles are not allowed in Matheran, so there was a tranquility that seemed remarkably unfamiliar after the constant noise of the city.
Upon waking up on the first full day in Matheran, I was overtaken by a supreme sense of calm. This persisted throughout the day, and I found myself reflecting upon the nature of time. As we were walking to one of the many viewpoints in Matheran, a silvery-white mist rolled in and shrouded the valley below. We stopped and sat in silence, staring out at the void.
The serenity of the moment was challenged only by the eeriness of not being able to see what was ahead of us. It felt as though nothing existed except for what we could see. We got talking about the fact that we have no way of knowing for sure that anything exists outside of what we can perceive with our senses.
This is actually an incredibly liberating notion. There is no need to be concerned with anything other than what is directly at hand. That said, this realization is deepened by the awareness that all of existence is experiencing the same moment in time in countless ways.
As you read this sentence, all of existence is in the same moment as you.
The paradox is that while we need not be concerned with anything outside our sphere of perception, we can also take comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone. All living things are connected by at least one thing: the present moment.
So, take a breath. Realize how many others are breathing. There is no past. There is no future.
Life is just one moment at a time being experienced by an infinite number of beholders.
You’re one of them. Rejoice!
3. Less is More, More is Less.
“I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind” — Albert Einstein
One of the most memorable moments of my first trip in India was this:
I was in a taxi with my girlfriend, and we were stopped at a traffic light. Outside, two women were washing their clothes in the gutter with murky, grey water. Behind them, there were sheets of plywood propped up against a dirty brick wall, and a few bronze pots and pans were scattered around the lean-to. I realized that these pieces of plywood were their homes, and it was likely that they were washing their only change of clothes.
I was overcome by a wave of guilt for ever complaining about my life of comfort and safety while there were people living in such mortifying conditions. I couldn’t imagine the suffering that they were going through. I felt such a strong sense of despair and injustice come over me. I wanted to get out of the taxi and help them.
It was at that moment that the sunlight pierced through the clouds, and both of the women broke into huge smiles. One of them said something and they burst into melodious laughter. A few children piled out of the lean-to homes and began playing around the two women. All of a sudden my perception of this scene completely changed.
These people had less than I could imagine, and their living conditions were so unfathomably undesirable to me that my natural reaction was to pity them.
However, I’d never such pure joy in any Western country. It had always seemed that people’s happiness was a feigned reenactment of what happiness was supposed to look like.
These women changed it all for me. If they could experience such bliss despite the poverty they lived in, why did I feel like I needed to wait until I achieved financial and career success to allow myself to be happy?
It dawned on me that this may be another secret to happiness: less is more. Obviously this was just one moment I witnessed, but it was a recurring theme in India. Those who had less material possessions to look after were able to focus more on relationships.
Western society has engrained in us the idea that more stuff = more happiness. This experience, and a culmination of many others I had throughout my travels of India, led me to believe that having less actually creates more room for happiness.
Getting rid of all of your possessions may not be the solution, but having a more mindful relationship with materialism can definitely create space for intrinsic happiness and true human connection.
Whether or not you’ve been to India, or plan to go, it is a country whose cultural and spiritual history has so much to offer to Western civilization in this time of incredibly rapid growth. If you are interested in learning more about Indian culture and spirituality, I can strongly recommend the Bhagvad Gita, Shantaram, and Autobiography of a Yogi. These are the books that initially inspired me to travel to India, and keep me coming back.
These 3 Keys To Happiness can benefit you, starting today:
There’s a stunning amount of insight to be gained from simply observing culture, whether that be the one you are a part of, or one that’s completely different from your own. The importance of throwing oneself into foreign territory cannot be underestimated.
Remember, happiness is not something that can be sought out or stumbled upon. It’s a state of being that one must choose to experience, moment to moment. This idea is contradictory to what society has programmed the masses to believe, but it is profound in its simplicity and truth:
“There is only one way to achieve lasting happiness. That way is simply: Be happy.” — Chris Prentiss, Zen and the Art of Happiness.
One last thing: challenge yourself to give a genuine smile to everyone you interact with throughout the day for at least three days in a row.
Try to make a habit of it.
Notice the differences in the way you feel, and observe how others react to your bold optimism.
If you smile, life will smile back.
Originally published at medium.com