WHAT BRINGS YOU HAPPINESS?
This morning, I was so perfectly on schedule to start writing this post, and then suddenly, I slipped. I gave into the unexpected pull, which led me to go back to a recording of my podcast. I was updating a Beam you see. Beams is a micro-podcasting app that I’ve been toying around with since the beginning of the year. I created a Beam (think of it like a dedicated topic channel) where I share the answers to the last question I invariably ask my podcast guests: what brings you happiness?
This question has a story. My meditation coaches Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield introduced it as one of the many prompts in the peer group session in their teacher certification program. My group was composed of six women, spread across five different time zones and across five different countries. We were to work in dyads via Zoom breakout rooms and the prompt was to take turns to ask the same question on repeat for three or four minutes. It sounded odd, but not hard. I was paired up with Alba, an effervescent academic who teaches art in a community college in Texas, with a very strong shakti energy. For those not into yoga read shakti as dynamic energy, alive, luminous, vibrant.
Alba asked, I responded, and then we reversed the roles. It went something like this:
What brings you happiness? My morning coffee. My homemade almond and hazelnut milk.
What brings you happiness? Sun. The sun’s rays through the leaves of the trees.
What brings you happiness? Flowers. Tuberose, jasmine, lilac. I can’t help myself, I have this need to stop and smell the roses.
What brings you happiness? That special someone.
What brings you happiness? Knowing that I am at home within myself.
What brings you happiness? Feeling aligned in myself, integrated.
What brings you happiness? Kind words whether from a stranger or a friend. Kindness.
What brings you happiness? Connection, shared energy. Yoga.
What brings you happiness? Good work, work well done, appreciated by others.
What brings you happiness? Being in harmony. Working in harmony.
And it went on, like this, for a little while longer.
Such a simple exercise. Such a simple question. Repeating it over and over again enabled us to gently peel away the layers, leaving us both realising that there are a tremendous amount of things that bring us happiness. What they all had in common is that they weren’t goods, things we needed to pay money to acquire. And they all felt easily accessible. They somehow also seemed both personal and universal.
The experience acted as a bonding practice between us, which we couldn’t have expected. Following that exercise, we moved to emailing each other regularly, sharing snippets from our daily lives and asking each other that same question at the end of each email.
One of the reasons I love this practice, this question, is because, despite all my dreams of grandeur and achievement, professional or otherwise, this brought me back to a simple state of grounding akin to what we may feel when writing a gratitude list. The energy and discovery in exploring this with a partner made it even more transformative. We were holding up a mirror for each other, holding space for this self-discovery. How powerful!
WHAT’S IN A WORD? FROM HARMONY TO IKIGAI
So, there I was, essentially procrastinating by going to update this new social media feed. In doing so, I came to re-listen to yoga teacher Chris Magee’s answer to that same question. His answer touched on Ikigai, a Japanese concept about how to find purpose in life. What brings him happiness is having found his balance, that sweet spot, from both the teachings of yoga and the career that was able to build as a teacher of these yoga practices.
My ears wide open, I realised there was more to his answer than I had realised at the time of our conversation. Huh. As I sat down to write, I’d made a note about my favourite word, harmony, which I wrote about in a previous post. All these questions I ask my guests I have asked myself too. I have my answers. I felt my spider-sense activated, there was something here to explore further.
Side note: instead of asking what is your favourite word, I should be asking the same question I had asked myself as a twenty-year-old: ‘If you had to tattoo one word on your body, what would it be? What word would make sense to you, one that you could live with over decades?’
So there was the convergence: what could my favourite word have to do with what brings me happiness? And how could that be linked to Ikigai?
To help me get to my answers, I started with doing what I do best: I googled it! Ikigai that is.
As I read it, according to the Japanese culture, everyone has an Ikigai and is able to find it by meditating on these four probing questions:
What do I love? What am I good at? What can I be paid for? What does the world need?
Now I was clear on the principles and had also looked over the Ikigai ven diagram that so clearly expresses the central nugget that is one’s true purpose, I applied the four questions and added the filter that is my favourite word. Geeky or what? Here’s how this went:
What do you love?
Harmony, writing vocal arrangements, bringing voices together for a beautiful, powerful, transformational result. Balance. Harmonious surroundings. Internal harmony.
Using my voice to convey emotion, create connection, transformation: as a singer, as a consultant, as a new meditation and mindfulness teacher, as a podcaster, as a writer.
What are you very good at?
Singing: my voice is strong, clear, flexible, and I exercise it daily. I know how to modulate its tone. Mindfully nurturing it, it gets better every day.
Story building or storytelling: identifying powerful stories, using intention and emotion to paint a vivid picture, finding the right mediums to convey the stories.
Putting voices together: making the connections, picking the right tones, textures that complement each other, the right team members, the right channels to reach the right audiences. Not a science, more like a fine art.
Orchestrating the different elements and knowing when to take a step back to let magic happen.
What does the world need?
Balance (see doughnut economics).
What can you be paid for?
Vocal arrangements (not trying to make a living from this but have a listen here at this vocal doodle I had fun recording with last year before putting out the podcast. I mean… give a girl a mic!)
Consulting: linking people, concepts and projects, bridging business development and storytelling.
Writing: stories connecting experiences, metaphors and concepts.
Podcasting/Coaching: holding space to let others have their own experience.
Letting magic happen.
MUSICAL METAPHORS AND ONE-BUTTOCK PLAYING
Most days, what I am really good at is being the conductor, as in orchestra, not bus conductor (LOL admittedly, I still don’t drive). Few understand the role of the ‘chef d’orchestre’ or band leader until you are in a group or an orchestra. Then it becomes glaringly obvious that having a lead is essential. Ideally, one who manages the energy within the group, fostering collaboration, helping all players to create the best possible result.
As it turns out, like a conductor, few understand my consulting style too (there are so many different types of consulting, right?), but that’s only until we work together that is.
Thinking about conductors sparked this idea that I should go back and watch the beautiful and fabulously entertaining Ted Talk by Benjamin Zander, an English conductor, who is currently the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
In this transformational talk (I know, big words and I stand by them), he shares this oddly named practice which he refers to as ‘one-buttock playing’.
‘Whether playing a challenging showpiece on the violin or leading a conversation with a large group, living life on 'one buttock' allows for spontaneity and freedom.’ Allowing for exploration and mystery, energy, empowering others.
Turns out, I’m very good at ‘one buttock playing’ and had no idea it was acceptable at all. The last time I tried to get piano lessons, reconnecting with my own classical roots, in 2013 or 2014, the teacher had to ask me to stop moving on the seat as I performed the piece I’d retrained my fingers to play.
My entire body swayed with the music in a way that apparently is not acceptable. As you can imagine, even though the teacher delivered the feedback with kindness, I was mortified. What’s wrong with me that I lean into the music so much and how could I cultivate the poise required to deliver that other piece of Chopin properly, this time the Nocturne op 9 no 2.
Of course, I now see why Benjamin Zander’s theatrics on the Ted stage and his expression of leaning into spontaneity touched me. Leaving us with this amusing concept full of lightness rarely associated with classical music, he then brings the audience to an emotional peak with a study on intention by offering a glimpse of the emotional vision powering his performance of Chopin’s prelude: the long line where the player's performance is driven by the connection from the first note all the way down to the last.
It’s rare to be able to show with such undeniability the power of clear vision and how the intention behind it shapes the final result, from the first note to the last. The audience was visibly moved and so was I.
Then the maestro explains the essence of conducting and how he discovered it some twenty years into his orchestral career:
‘The conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.[...] It was totally life-changing. [...] My job is to awaken possibility in other people.”
He went on to explain: “If their eyes are shining, you know you are doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask yourself a question. Who am I being that the eyes of my players are not shining?”
His definition of success is compelling: it’s not about wealth and power, but how many shining eyes he has around him, how he is able to use his energy and his ability to help move it in others. I guess I have found my new mentor, for that is what I, too, love to create and nurture.
As Kate Raworth said the other week in her interview on Intelligence Squared (and maybe my new favourite quote): 'Energy, you could say, is the ultimate currency, not money.'
I have been known to conduct or lead - since that first a cappella girl band back when I was 17 - and I have been led as a performer, as an assistant, as an executive. As such, I understand how good direction can drive certain performance and results. How the underlying motivations and intentions can create strong flowing energy in teams or sap all energy out of a room.
So, my own style matches Benjamin Zander’s success metric: I do my best to lead with empathy and remind myself that we are all here - all of us - full of our universal needs for happiness, our need to find purpose and meaning. I put all my energy into making those eyes shine bright: I arrange, I enroll , I harmonise. Like him, sometimes I fail and I check in with myself to see who I am being that the eyes of those around me are not shining. A work in progress for sure, but soul-feeding work I would add.
I guess this exercise in layering what brings me happiness + my favourite word + Ikigai was pretty worthwhile for me. Has it sparked something in you too, reader, and left your eyes shining just a little more?
Consider trying to find your keyword. The one that you’d tattoo on yourself. See how that keyword can be a powerful metaphorical lens to superimpose onto your Ikigai explorations. And feel free to get in touch and let me know what happens!
Meanwhile, Alba and I are still in touch, as I am still with others from our peer group. We have continued to meet monthly on Zoom since graduating and are cooking up a fine plan to teach mindfulness to students of her community college later this year. College and technology permitting, we will be co-teachers offering twice-weekly free meditation and talks to students, supported by our mentor-conductor, the inimitable and ever inspiring Solwazi Johnson.
Sometimes, wonderful things happen when you ask the person in front of you: what brings you happiness.