From New York to London: My experiments with WhatsApp, wellness, and why I don’t want to wait.
The lights showed up just for me. Sheets of stained glass transforming the cathedral into green Technicolor. Outside, the afternoon sun sparkled, while in here, debris sparks sought shelter in chandeliers as a spirited flight of flames from candles at the altar unabashedly undressed its light upon us. Fire is not entirely new to St. Paul’s cathedral. The first Christian cathedral, dedicated to St. Paul in AD 604 under King Aethelberht I, was burned, and its replacement was destroyed by Viking raiders in 962. In 1087 a third cathedral, built to replace the second, also burned. The spire of the fourth cathedral was destroyed by lightening (and a resulting fire) during the English Reformation. This fifth cathedral, built after the Great Fire of London and standing strong today, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1710.¹ As I perused its infinite and opulent halls, considering the role of transformation in Hindu philosophy, of transmigration and rebirth and the need for ruin to build new again, I was enthralled by the fantastic silence of light exploding between aisles. Light in soft repose, breaking through windows and walls, lighting and enlightening. Wandering through this magnificent page of history, what I ultimately discovered was something beyond light – an afterthought of light, or, sun dust. Tiny light particles insisting upon existence, bringing the cathedral to an unexpected state of flux. Sun dust gets trapped in the sun’s atmosphere and falls to earth in the form of light particles. If rediscovering the scientific miracle of sun dust in a quiet afternoon in St. Paul’s Cathedral is not poetic enough for you, perhaps this is. Last year I moved to London after living in New York for ten years – an identity I, like most New Yorkers, assumed with the ultimate pride. Compared to the chaotic, type-A opinionated, in-your-face, frenzied passion of New York, London seemed cold, quiet, neutral. In New York I was surrounded by a beautiful community of dancers, writers, and artists that I called family, only to find myself in a new city having to start off again. While conceptually I loved the idea of embarking on a new journey in a new city with my husband, concretely I couldn’t deny the fact that once I moved here, I was desperately homesick. I missed everything about my New York life – starting early Saturday mornings with dance practice for Junoon Performing Arts, an indo-contemporary dance company I had created with three of my best friends, bottomless brunches where we would debate everything from literature to films to politics to philosophy, taking in the city’s skyline at dawn after one of those rooftop benefit fundraisers that would turn into a late night dance party in Meatpacking that would turn into a later night dining session and more debates on everything from literature to films to politics to philosophy at our favorite 24-hr French bistro – L’Express.
To help me get through this major life change, I clung tenaciously to the idea of wellness. Wellness, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is the state of being in good health as an actively pursued goal. There are six dimensions of wellness: occupational, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional. The course “Wisdom and Well-Being”, taught at the University of Virginia by Marketing Professor David Mick, provides business students with techniques to enhance their professional lives, such as considering stressful situations and evaluating how one responds to them, becoming more patient in the workplace, and practicing humility.² In his lectures Mick references Mahatma Gandhi as a figure we can all aspire to; someone who has taught the world how to lead with silent endurance and humble strength.
I know, I know. That’s easier said than done. So I turned to something more tangible - physical wellness. Small steps, I told myself. For physical wellness, movement is necessary. Exercise not only releases endorphins, it has proven to have long-lasting effects on overall health, happiness, and longevity. From running to dance to pilates to yoga, if it makes you sweat, you are doing something right. So it was, and I was. But something still wasn’t right. My anxiety was at record highs, and I would catch myself imagining the most negative outcome possible for any given situation. Of course it didn’t help that we were and are living through times of tremendous geopolitical uncertainty, whether it’s political turmoil internationally or closer to home in London.
The Himba tribe in Namibia uses the power of music during periods of change or crisis. The tribe gifts each child born in the village with a song, which is sung to the child through every rite of passage from starting school to becoming an adult to getting married. The tribe believes that change can occur optimally only when we remember our roots – a song which, through life, will continue to remind each of us of our identity.³ Songs have the power to heal, and starting over again in a new country was as big a personal crisis as I had ever embarked on. So open up your morning light, and say a little prayer for I. You know that if we are to stay alive. . . .Listening to my self-proclaimed song while soaking in lavender Epsom bath salts with tea-tree scented organic candles became my new favorite ritual. Paula Cole’s voice belting and crooning from my iPhone was enough to invoke carefree school days, when my only worries consisted of the latest episode of Dawson’s Creek, the TV show for this soundtrack, or reruns of My So-Called Life. Even taking 15 minutes after work to sit still for a moment and breathe helped immensely. For a woman whose formative years were epitomized by 80s films, songs, and sitcoms, this wellness experiment of recalling the dashing Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, while listening to Paula Cole was an entirely spiritual one. #instacrush
But that’s a whole different blog, so let’s move on to social wellness. A Harvard study on adult development states that the most important factor for long term health and well-being is maintaining satisfying relationships. Even if the relationships have ups and downs through time, those with the strongest relationships, who could count on others through difficult events were more protected against chronic disease, mental illness, and memory decline over the long term.⁴ In London, making an effort to meet new people made all the difference. By joining networks like the Indian Young Professionals Network, I was able to discuss dance with Arunima, and reminisce on all things American with expats Sai, Sudhir, Pooja, and Gayatri. Debating Trump and Brexit in a NY deli in London over black coffee and Huevos Rancheros is a new memory I have carved for myself in this city, a city I admittedly have not given a fair chance to (it would be cheating on my first, true, and only love). #wanderlust #Not
Speaking of true love, as a newlywed, I have found that it’s supremely important in a marriage not to rely on your significant other, as much as you love them, for all your emotional needs. In your brokerage portfolio, would you ever go to 100% US large cap growth stocks? Then why put all the pressure on one person to become your everything. In asset allocation and in life, diversify, diversify, diversify. To maximize returns and minimize risk, it’s imperative to appreciate and maintain all the different relationships that have made us the dynamic people we are today – relationships with family, friends, the universe, and ourselves. When I want to indulge in Bollywood gossip I WhatsApp my cousins group – a global network of sisters in Australia, India, US, and Spain. The wonderful thing about these times is that it’s never been easier to keep in touch, and maintaining close and healthy relationships in our lives is as important to wellness as eating a salad or going spinning daily.
In the Art of Happiness, Dalai Lama writes that happiness is determined more by our state of mind than by external events that happen to us. If one’s original baseline level of happiness is high, even after experiencing a negative experience like an accident, he will eventually return to the higher level of happiness. On the other hand, if one’s original baseline level is low, and he ends up winning the lottery, he will eventually return to low levels of satisfaction thereafter.⁵
So perhaps what’s most important to remember is that it’s all in the mind. And yes, I know you know that stress is bad for you. And no, I will not stress you out even more about not stressing. The thing is, there will be no situation in your life that you will not be a part of. Which is to say that anything that happens to us will be interpreted and narrated only by us. So ultimately, it’s in our hands how we reflect on situations that life throws our way. This, my friends, is mindfulness. Fortunately, very few events in our lives tend to be black and white, and most external events that unfold are open to interpretation. The book “The Organized Mind” by Daniel J Levitin delves into how information overload and multitasking, which is so emblematic of our generation, has negative effects on the brain. On average we take in five times as much information today as we did in 1986. The excess of unrelated information, as well as multi-tasking, has been found to increase the fight or flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate the brain. This leads to anxiety, raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which can lead to aggressive and impulsive behavior.⁶ Despite the chaos around us, in order to feel at peace, we must train our minds to disconnect, unplug, and to interpret personal events wisely. Moving towards positivity takes practice. Writing five positive things as I start my day, or reciting daily affirmations to myself each morning has helped me shift away from my naturally-jaded-extremely-cynical-we-are-all-going-to-die-New-York-state-of-mind. These calming rituals, like meditation, can rewire the brain towards optimism. Similar to the ancient Hindu concepts of dharma and karma, I truly believe that the energy we put out there is what we get back. The universe is a beautiful place that takes care of us and carries us through each day. The more we open ourselves to the universe, the more it opens itself to us. So wish the best for all living things in this universe from plants to animals to people (yes, even that fat chauvinist asshole uncle who voted for Trump, is happy about Brexit, and is anti- abortion/women/science/education/evolution/environment/happy; every family has one of those). #ican’t
Also, stop thinking. I mean it. Right now. Left uncontrolled, my inner judgmental dialogue is Milkha Singh on speed. It’s unbeatable. Usually I have to work really hard to make it calm down, slow down, and take a breather. Just because my friend didn’t respond to my WhatsApp for a whole hour after it initially said “Typing. . .” doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about me ever since I admitted that I didn’t like her new beige walls and now she has officially Frenemied me where she pretends to like me but really doesn’t and is right now talking trash about me to all our common friends as I write this blog. It just means that she is. . .busy.
I admit. Even after all my experiments, I am still no expert on wellness. But one thing I have learned by tackling this topic is that wellness is personal. It can mean anything that you want it to mean, as long as it makes you feel good. As long as it makes you stop for a while to pay attention to yourself. To make your heart happy. These days I stroll through St. Paul’s with my very own song. I don’t want to wait/For our lives to be over/Won’t you know by now what will it be, sings my heart, as I browse through the magnificent arches and aisles of the cathedral that have been built and re-built many a time. This symbol of ruin, of perseverance, but most of all, of the hunger for transformation. I want to claim this small part of this new city as my own. And like the process of accidentally finding sun dust during a quiet afternoon in this cathedral, let’s move forward by slowing down. With active bodies, clear minds and positive, ever open hearts. Each of us a tiny molecule doing our best in our lives, in every dimension we can, sometimes progressing, sometimes retreating, always relying on the light to take us. And if you ever find yourself in a new city, having to make yourself again, I pray that you come across a quiet place like this cathedral. One you can frequent, that you can make your own. A tiny additional request, from one humble molecule, to a universe that has already given us everything that we need.
¹ The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 8th ed., s.v. “Saint Paul’s Cathedral” London: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1999.
² Lisa Quast, “To Be More Successful In Your Career – Cultivate The Skill of Mindfulness,” Forbes, June 2017, accessed July 18, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2017/06/12/to-be-more-successful-in-your-career-cultivate-the-skill-of-mindfulness/#af6c2bf3a919.
³ Ann Voskamp, 2014, “A Bit of Instructions On How To Live A Good Life, How To Be An Artist, A Parent, A Creative, A Dreamer.” The Holy Experience Blog, June 23 (accessed June 18, 2017) http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/06/a-bit-of-instructions-on-how-to-live-a-good-life-how-to-be-an-artist-a-parent-a-creative-a-dreamer
⁴ Colby Itkowitz, “Harvard researchers discovered the one thing everyone needs for happier, healthier lives,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2016, accessed June 18, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/03/02/harvard-researchers-discovered-the-one-thing-everyone-needs-for-happier-healthier-lives/
⁵ His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Cutler, Howard C. The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
⁶ Levitin, Daniel. The Organized Mind. UK: Penguin Random House, 2014.