It is now the 3 year mark from when I volunteered with 500 dogs at Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had been there for about 1 week when it hit me. While walking one of the dogs at the sanctuary (that had been placed in a bag and beat with a stick on several occasions), I had a light bulb go off. I was surrounded by mountains, elephants, and dogs that desperately needed attention and love. Also, I was the happiest that I had been in a very long time. The clarity came washing over me when I realized I was approaching the end of my stay with the dogs and I had practically worn the same sweaty, stinky outfit every day, I hadn’t looked in the mirror all week, and I constantly had dirt under my nails, but I was so refreshingly happy.
At that moment, my paradigm shifted. It was not a fancy car, shoes, or other material possessions that made me feel that happy, it was that I had immersed myself in service. Nothing pulls us out of our spiraling thoughts of insecurity, sadness, or anxiety like truly being there for another person, or in my case LOTS of dogs. I had just walked away from the comfort of my nicely paying manager Job at Lush Cosmetics and I was still in the midst of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, but one thing was certain, the material possessions that society convinced me I wanted, were no longer on my radar.
Fast forward 3 years and I can now look back and thank the Franci from 3 years ago for following her gut. Walking away from the stable job was nerve wracking, but the more I continue to do what I love, the path continues to make itself more clear. While away for 6 months I became a certified yoga instructor and I’ve noticed that the yoga I love to share and vigorously learn about is the one that empowers and helps us understand our mind and how to overcome suffering.
The more I study yogic texts and other Eastern philosophies, the more I understand why I experienced that refreshing happiness while I was a stinky and sweaty volunteer.
The Yoga Sutras spell out the steps to reducing suffering in 8 steps and leading these 8 steps or limbs, the very first is ahimsa or not harming. In a nutshell, this has to start with how we talk to ourselves – our opinion of ourselves, the words we see ourselves using in our mind, and our patterns of thinking. Once we stop being hard on ourselves we can also start being more kind towards others. The less harm we cause others, the less suffering we experience. If we can also begin to prevent the harming to humans, animals, or our planet, it is a powerfully uplifting experience. Even if it is just one person or one dog, helping them reduce their discomfort is instantly uplifting.
Compassion is the backbone of Buddhist philosophy and a very common meditation in Buddhism is Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM). Compassion and LKM are a way of gladdening the mind. Our tendency to perceive negative things in life and have them stored in our memories instantly, are all thanks to our limbic system. Positive situations take a bit longer for our mind to understand (15-30 seconds) and store in our memories. It is important to consciously balance the scales and practice things like compassion so that we are not always consumed by negative thoughts.
In my case I saw the effects of compassion and non-harming so clearly when I was volunteering. Reducing the suffering of the animals in the shelter made my suffering diminish. Walking and giving love to the dogs was instantly gratifying because they let you know how much they appreciate you with all their excitement and attention.
Suddenly, my obsession with my problems and worries were significantly reduced. Going to another country and learning about why there were around 500 dogs at the shelter, learning about the local culture, and doing whatever I could to bring a bit of joy to the dogs helped me zoom out and realize the scope of life. I saw, more clearly, my tile in the grand mosaic of life.
It only felt like the natural next step to share my understanding of a happy heart with others. The future of Happy Hearts Yoga Project will be filled with learning more from charitable causes from near and far as well as learning about sustainable happiness. Retreats will partner with locally run nonprofits in order for travelers to learn about the local culture through the lens of the nonprofits. We will continue to learn and cultivate practices that allow us to become more resilient and balanced.