Museum of Happiness with Shamash Alidina
Shamash talks about family expectations vs finding his true purpose, mindfulness, the Museum of Happiness and the power of sleep. He shares easy tips to help you cultivate self-compassion.
Today’s guest is Shamash Alidina, who has been practising mindfulness since 1998. He runs his own successful training organisation in the UK. Shamash is the international bestselling author of the Mindfulness for Dummies series and the co-founder of the Museum of Happiness, a non-profit organisation that provides an experiential adventure where people of all ages and backgrounds can learn more about the essence of happiness and well-being. Shamash is a speaker, teacher and a qualified laughter yoga teacher.
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Hello and welcome to the show.
Hello, Clare. Thank you very much for the invitation. I’m excited to be here.
I’m so pleased to have you here. You have been doing some really interesting, fun and meaningful work in the world. I’d love to talk a little bit about how the place that you live, which is London, it’s the same city that I’m in, how does London influence the work that you do on a day-to-day level?
I actually travel quite a lot, so half the time I’m in London and half the time I’m somewhere else. Just from travelling and spending more time with nature, I realised the stress of being in London and being constantly connected. One of the things I’ve done recently, we were doing a Crowdfunder for our Museum of Happiness about five or six weeks ago. I had to send about a thousand WhatsApp messages with people coming in and going out over the course of just the last few days. I could just feel how tired I was from this constant messaging so I deleted that app actually just to try to do it for a day. I thought, “It felt so good.” I did it for another day and then another day. Actually, it’s been almost a month and a half now and I gradually deleted more and more of my social media apps and various things. Eventually, I actually even broke the phone. I think I finally done half consciously, half unconsciously. That’s actually given me a very different experience of London, to be honest.
I don’t like to say that a physical place or location is the source of stress. I don’t think London in itself is, but my relationship or the way I connect with different people and talk to different people, that can be a cause of stress. It’s constant connectivity. Each time a message comes in, I think it drains a little bit of energy and it accumulates over the course of the day. Just having this opportunity to have no phone or using it very little has given me a more pleasant experience of being in London and feeling more connected with myself and my surroundings. That’s what comes to mind when you ask me about London at the moment.
What kinds of things do you like to do when you first come back from travelling to reconnect and to recover from the experience of being away and maybe meeting lots of new people?
I love sleeping, actually. I’ve recently come back from Berlin and I gave a talk on what’s called kindfulness. I don’t teach mindfulness in a traditional sense. I teach kindfulness, which is a combination of mindfulness with kindness and compassion. The story for that goes, I’ve been travelling around a lot. It was about three years ago, I’d come back to London in January or February. I was expecting some jetlag and just taking some time to recover so I had given myself a few days, but even a week later I was waking up feeling tired. I thought, “Let me put some extra effort into my meditation,” which is actually contrary, you’re not supposed to put so much effort in meditation. I tried that and that didn’t work. In fact, I felt even more tired by week three. I said, “This is not good, for a mindfulness teacher to have burnout. I need to think of a new solution.” I had this genius idea, which is every time I feel sleepy, go to sleep.
I woke up and I puttered around a bit and I felt sleepy so I went to bed and just try going to sleep. I ended up just playing on my phone a little bit and looking on YouTube and I ended up listening to this monk who gave a talk, the name is Ajahn Brahm. He gave a talk about four ways of letting go. He started recommending a retreat, like retreat day one, talk one. I thought, “This is fantastic. I can do a retreat from my bed.” The meditation became more like bed-itation. He was actually a very compassionate monk. He kept saying, “If you’re feeling sleepy for the first few days of the meditation, there is no point fighting your sleep to try and meditate. Just sleep, meditate flat out, literally.” If you want to do some chanting, you can, which is snoring. That’s what I was doing.
I felt as if I was being actually quite lazy. I’m really pushing it now. I’m really not doing any work at all. I’ve got all these emails building up, “This is not good.” I went in my gut feeling and what this teacher was teaching. By day four or five, I was having the most incredible meditation experiences in my life. I was completely blissing out in bed. I was feeling very energised and very relaxed. Basically, from that day onwards, I’ve been teaching kindfulness, which is about being super, super kind to your body and to your mind and to your heart and really asking your body, “What would you like to do right now?” Asking your mind, “Would you like to just wander off for a while?” That’s absolutely fine. You can do some mind wandering for ten minutes if you want. Actually, having that flexibility of going from being a control freak to more of a kindness freak towards our own bodies and minds and hearts, that feels so good.
This morning in fact, just as an example, I’m staying in a different flat, which is near a beautiful park, Bushy Park in South West London. I was writing a blog post about being friends with yourself and part of the blog post was ask your body, “What would you like to do right now?” I did, I said, “Body, what would you like to do right now?” It’s like, “I really don’t like to write this blog post unless you go for a walk in Bushy Park.” I’m like, “Really? Okay.” I did that. I closed my computer and I had a little bit of time. I spent 45 minutes going for a walk in the beautiful park and I had a lovely, lovely morning. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t asked my body, “What would you like to do right now?”
It just takes asking the right questions and being kind enough to yourself to actually do it even if you think you’re being too self-indulgent. I don’t think we are. I think we’re just re-energizing ourselves. We work extremely hard in cities, far more than we ever did in the history of humanity in terms of using our brain and in terms of the amount of information that’s coming to us. We really do need a lot of rest and recharging, relaxation. Leaving the phone behind and going for a stroll in the park, looking at the trees and the people and the dogs and the beautiful sky. It feels like a luxury but I think it’s a normal way of living, to be honest, connecting with our surroundings.
Those were really fantastic insights that you’ve just shared with us, Shamash. I’d love to hear about whether there are any specific practices on a micro level that our listeners might be able to apply to their day-to-day routines in order to cultivate a bit more self-compassion and just feel a bit calmer in their day-to-day.
I love that question, the concepts of micro actions, because there are so many different things that we’re always doing for health and well-being. I’m a meditation mindfulness teacher. People think about it as, “I need to do meditation. That’s another thing I need to put in my life.” Then, it becomes another thing that we need to beat ourselves up about as well. “I’ve been to the gym and I’ve done this and now I need to do more meditation.” A really, really important thing to remember, which I’ve learned, is that meditation, mindfulness, all these stuff is not about what you’re doing or what you’re paying attention to. It’s all about the how.
It’s not about whether you’re focusing on your breathing or focusing on this conversation or focusing on the trees or focusing on an argument you’re having with someone, hopefully not. It’s actually how you’re paying attention. It’s the attitude you bring to it. The attitude, which I keep emphasizing, which I found so helpful, is whatever the experience is, can you make peace with it? Can you be kind to it? Can you bring a sense of gentleness and friendliness? Can you bring a sense of love to that? It doesn’t have to be 100% of the love and the compassion and the kindness and acceptance. It can be 1%. If it can’t be 1%, it could be a hundredth of 1%. But can you take that tiny step towards actually shifting your attitude? For example, for any listeners listening at the moment, as you’re listening, I don’t know what you’re doing but can you actually listen with a little bit more of a friendly attitude towards yourself? Rather than really concentrating and trying to hang on every single word, can you maybe just lean back a little bit and be a bit more relaxed in the way you’re listening?
What I’m trying to say here is it’s not like I’m going to give you another practice that you need you to do in your lives. Meditation is fantastic. If you start to enjoy and like it, do a few minutes, do five minutes, do half an hour, do as much as feels comfortable to you. What’s really more important is the attitude you bring from moment to moment. I like this really beautiful answer, someone asked a teacher once, “When is the best time to meditate and how long should I do it?” The best time is always now and the best place is here. In terms of how long you do it, it’s something that we try to practice in everything that we do rather than just boxing it in this one part of our lives and just forget it for the rest of our lives. That’s the really important thing.
If you do value things like meditation and you want to bring that into your life, then think in terms of micro actions, it’s beautiful. I really agree with start with a minute or two. For a minute, when you wake up in the morning, maybe just have a little smile on your face. If you can’t manage to smile, use your two fingers and do some push-ups and push the corners of your mouth. Just take a few deep breaths in and a few deep breaths out. You’re going to think that this is not going to make a difference to my life. That’s okay to have that thought, but just do it anyway. The next day maybe, do one minute and one second, or maybe even do less, and maybe a few days you’ll forget. Just start with something really, really small. If you think that’s too much, you can do it right now as you’re listening. Take a few deep breaths, have a little gentle smile, become aware of your body and just relax it a little bit. These tiny, tiny things, they really, really do make a big difference. If you want to start a snowball, you can start with a huge snowball actually but usually you start with a small one. Then it gradually builds up its momentum and you end up with this huge snow ball at the end.
I was just researching about pensions and investments and stuff and how this can start again with something very, very small but if you save regularly, you get this compounding effect. I think the same thing happens with these things that we’re talking about. If you start with something very small, a few deep breaths, a little smile, just connecting with nature for every day, just looking at trees or looking at the sky or giving a smile to someone else or opening the door for someone. These small things that we all know about, just do these little actions and then gradually they start having this bigger and bigger and bigger effect. Even if they don’t, even if it’s just a small difference, that’s great too because we only have this moment now ultimately so any small thing helps. Those are the little practices that come to mind.
That sounds really beautiful. I think for many of us living in big cities, particularly if we’re living in a really concrete-y part our city, it can feel challenging to find nature. However, looking up at the sky, that’s everywhere. Most of us are living in cities where there’s a river, there are lakes and parks. I love the idea that if you’re really in the heart of the concrete jungle, you can just look up. No matter that there might be skyscrapers piercing the clouds, you can still have that small moment of connection with the elements. It’s beautiful.
That just reminds me of another little example. I remember there was one successful financial trader or something working in New York. He is super rich. He could easily take cabs from one meeting to the next, going from one skyscraper to another. He decided that after he had each meeting, he was going to go down. I don’t know if he actually walked down the stairs but he actually went down to the ground floor and walked from one building to the next. During that walk, he practiced letting go of all the things that were discussed in the next meeting and just letting go of all the things that he was going to talk about in his next meeting. Because he did this, he wasn’t on his phone and trying to send emails and all these kind of stuff. He was far more refreshed than anybody else in that meeting. He was completely present and actually could make the best decision. This is what was the secret of his success ultimately. He actually became very, very present, very in the moment and made high quality decisions. Because when we practice that, our prefrontal cortex, the more intelligent, creative, reflective part of our brain, is activated. This is actually a pure scientific thing. Whereas if you’re constantly on the go, you’re constantly multitasking, it does start wearing us out and then that part of our brain doesn’t function so well so you’re not able to make such great decisions. That’s one other example that comes to mind.
I have one more very quick one I’d like to share as well. I know another person, he was a trader. He was working in a bank and he was due for a pay raise. His manager said, “You’ve done really, really well. How much money would you like? What would you like? We can reward you.” He said, “I would really like it if we could sit in silence for one minute before our meetings.” The manager started laughing, “I don’t know if you’re joking. Really, what do you want?” He’s like, “No, I really want that.” He’s like, “I’m sorry, we can’t give that. We can give you a $100,000, $500,000 or we can get a new car.” He’s just like, “No, I just want this one minute of silence before meetings.” He’s like, “Are you serious?” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m serious. I really want that.” He’s like, “Okay, so we try it.” They tried that, and then the one minute, people enjoyed it, became two minutes, became three minutes. Now, they sit in silence for twenty minutes. I don’t know if they have time for their meeting. Apparently sitting in silence for about twenty minutes because everyone enjoys it so much. This is another beautiful example of micro actions, the power of these silent minutes and how can they lead to something beautiful.
Yeah, the cumulative effect that can have a positive impact. I love those examples, thank you so much. Do you have a favourite walk in London? Is there a particular part of town that you really enjoy strolling along?
Yeah, now I’m actually staying at South West London at the moment. There are two of them. One of them was through the Bushy Park starting from Hampton Hill and it goes all the way through to Kingston. This is a special park because it’s got these beautiful deers wandering around. When you start wandering around after a while, it really feels like you’re in the Savannah. It feels like you’re in Africa. My parents actually were born in Africa. Maybe I got this genetic connection, but it feels really, really good to be wandering around through that and coming out in the other side and enjoying a nice coffee there. That’s one.
The other one in South West London is actually along the Thames Path. You can actually walk along the River Thames in Kingston to Richmond. It’s quite a long walk but walking around the river is just like a totally different energy. That actually feels really, really lovely, too. Those are the two that come to mind in terms of nice walks in London.
I’d love to talk just briefly about how you came to do the work that you do today?
I remember going to my careers advisor. I was good at science and I was thinking about, “I could be a doctor. I’m from an Indian origin so my parents will be happy with me. I will look really cool in that lab coat. Everyone would call me Dr. Shamash. How cool is that?” The first thing he said is that, “Did you know that the highest suicide rate of all professions is Medicine?” I’m like, “No, I didn’t know that. Let’s move to the next one along the list.” From doctor, came engineer. I thought, “I’ll just pick whichever one had the highest salary.” I really didn’t know what I was doing. I ended up choosing Chemical Engineering. It’s a four-year course. After the second year, which is a bit of a struggle actually, super smart people seemed to do the subject so I wasn’t able to be top of the class just like I was used to. That was a struggle in itself. My self-esteem was getting hit, which is a good thing. I was probably too arrogant.
Then somewhere in the holidays, I tried it as a job. It was so boring. I was sitting in this office and we’re working at the size of pipes for an oil rig in Indonesia. I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” Everybody was just so slow and doing the same thing every day and left at the same time every day. I used to take these huge lunch breaks and they were so long we had to swipe in and out. In my last month, I actually ended up with a negative pay check. I knew that this is not going to work for me financially because I can’t actually stay in the office long enough. Somehow I was working and losing money. I thought, “What shall I do?” I actually saw a poster on the London Underground for a Philosophy class. I thought, “Yes, Practical Philosophy. That’s the opposite of Chemical Engineering, let’s try that.” I went along to this evening class. That was the moment that changed my life. They talked about different levels of awareness and consciousness, which I’ve never even heard of before.
The really interesting thing was when she did this five-minute mindfulness meditation exercise, but we didn’t call it that then. We just became aware of our senses and I thought, “This is nice.” We became aware of our thoughts, which I thought is cool. Then they say you can actually step back from your thoughts. I’m like, “What do you mean?” “You can be the observer, so you are not even your thoughts.” I realised, these thoughts that have been talking to me my whole life, I thought that was absolutely reality but it wasn’t. It was just thoughts that were popping in my head. Sometimes they were true, sometimes they were not. That was a real wake up moment for me. From then onwards, I wanted to share what I discovered with children, with adults, with everyone. I became a school teacher where all the children did this mindfulness type stuff.
When I became a school teacher, I had a huge afro, a lot of hair. Gradually, every year, the hair fell out and then by the tenth year as a school teacher, all the hair was gone. I was thinking, “What’s going to fall off next? I need to get out of this.” Then I decided to teach adults, which is a lot less stressful and enjoyable. That’s been a fantastic journey too for the last seven years. Now, mainly I train these mindfulness teachers online. I share stories and talks on kindfulness because this really works nicely for me and for others too. We started this Museum of Happiness as well in the last few years.
Tell us about that.
Mindfulness is already cool if you’re into this kind of stuff. If you’re not really into it, then it’s very hard to connect with that. I was trying to think, what would be a nice way of sharing mindfulness in a way that it’s more accessible to people? I was wandering around and I looked at a bus and the advert on the bus was “Drink happiness.” It was for a fizzy drink. I was like, “Drink happiness, with a fizzy drink, which has thirteen spoons of sugars? That’s not quite right.” But there are ways that we can actually feel happier. There are things that we can do that can lift our mood and make us feel better. I believe that mindfulness is one of them and there are other things too. That got me thinking about using the concept of happiness.
I went to one of these Dalai Lama talks. I was a volunteer and I was talking to a girl sitting next to me. I was like, “What do you do?” She’s like, “My parents run The Museum of Nonsense.” I’m like, “Pardon?” She’s like, “The Museum of Nonsense. It’s been going for twenty years. It’s in Vienna. It’s really popular.” I’m like, “We got a museum for nonsense?” She’s like, “Yeah, it’s brilliant. You should check it out.” I was like, “Wow.” I did check it out, obviously. It’s hilarious. I started Google-ing, Museum of Laughter, and I typed Museum of Happiness and there were no results. I’m like, “Wow.” I started chatting to a new friend of mine who was also very interested in this idea, Vicky Johnson. We loved the idea. We didn’t have a clue how to start a museum. When we shared the ideas with people, they loved it too.
We started little events and then 30 people came, 40 people came. Actually, two years ago, it went viral. We put it on Facebook and we just thought, “We’re going to try and get 100 people. We’re hoping to get three or four people on the first day we put it on Facebook. Two days later, the Facebook page had been seen by a million people and 10,000 people had registered a ticket to one of our events. Normally, we’re happy with 50 people. We managed to pull it off and we maxed out my credit card to try and pull the event off and we did it. People actually loved it. That was two years ago on a Blue Monday, which is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. We had all sorts of things. We had things like mindful colouring in and silent disco and different types of meditation, self-compassion meditations and yoga or Tai Chi and Mindful Bollywood. That was a lot of fun, Mindful Bollywood dancing. We also had a gratitude tree where people can write what they’re grateful for. We had a ball pit so people can just jump in with thousands of balls and just have a little bit of fun and bringing a little playfulness to their lives. We gave people a variety of experiences so they can choose what feels right for them, including some information about the science of happiness. We tested that model and people seem to like it.
Now, we recently just finished a Crowdfunder and we’re going to open a large permanent space in Camden from September where you’ll be able to do all sorts of things, from laughter yoga, singing, dancing, even adult play. There are lots of companies that teach play for adults, so we have that, and even the more traditional things like yoga or meditation as well; things that can actually have an evidence basis behind them to lift our well-being. It’s almost like a sense of well-being. Museum of Happiness, so there’ll be information about the science of happiness, different ways in which you can find happiness.
Also, how different countries around the world are trying to maximise happiness. Countries like Bhutan make the decisions not on GDP, but on GNH, Gross National Happiness. I’ve been there and people really are happy, I found them to be happy. They also really look after the environment. They’ve got more national forest than any other country in the world in terms of percentage. It’s the only carbon negative country in the world. They actually take in more carbon dioxide in their forest and they give out through their pollution, so future in a way. Other countries are starting to slowly, slowly emulate them. Make decisions not on how much money we make but what actually makes the human beings within this country or area actually feel happy and more connected with each other.
It’s really inspiring to hear that. I can’t wait for the museum to open. London is lucky.
We’ve had a little one open in Shoreditch for about a year. We’ve been testing that. Now, we’re going to be opening a big one. It’s also a part of New York’s biggest homeless hostel. We’ve been given a room as part of that. We’re going to be giving some free access to the people who used to be homeless but they’re now housed. We’ve already taught them some meditation and yoga. It has helped them to secure jobs actually because we helped them to calm their minds down so they could be more focused. Also, it’s open to the general public, schools and things so we can teach more about this important skill.
Do you think that for those individuals that you just talked about, the formerly homeless men and women, do you think that these mindfulness techniques will help them cultivate resilience as they re-enter mainstream society?
I think all people who have been homeless or are homeless quite often suffer from mental health challenges. It becomes a little bit of a vicious cycle. There’s so much nice evidence that suggest these mind-body practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga and even things like arts and all sorts of different kinds of activities, something that you can do in a group or one-to-one with someone who really listens to you and cares for you. Gives you an opportunity to work through your emotions and start to bring a little bit of kindness and compassion towards yourself.
You can imagine how easy it would be to have a negative view of yourself when you end up on the streets, one thing leads to the other, you end up not having a place to stay. Imagine how easy it would be to beat yourself up, and that could happen day after day. If someone spends sometime with you or spend time in class, where you’re actually not focusing on the negative thoughts about yourself but you’re focusing on your breathing or you’re focusing in your body sensations, and you’re noticing that you’re starting to just relax a bit. That can give you so much confidence and self-esteem.
This is what we’ve actually found happen and got such amazing positive feedback from the people. We’re really excited that we can actually open a space there and allow them to mix with the general public as well. I think that’s really important too. We see the connection between each other rather than this person is homeless or this person used to be homeless and this one isn’t. We’re all human beings and it’s so easy to put ourselves into different boxes when we don’t connect with each other. Whereas when you bring people together, we notice that we’re actually all very much the same. That’s an important part of happiness and well-being, to be able to actually connect we each other.
One of the challenges in the cities is that because there are so many people, for some reason it creates disconnection. When I’m on a holiday in a small village or something, every single person looks at me and gives me a nice big smile, starts a conversation about nothing important in particular but just chatting. Whereas when we’re in a city, we’re surrounded by people that it’s so easy to have a disconnect. These different kinds of projects like The Museum of Happiness and many others can give an opportunity for the community to form so people can get to know each other and talk to each other.
Just to share with you a nice little story. In The Museum of Happiness that we’ve had in Shoreditch, there was one chap who was homeless and he came in to the café festival. We have paid it forward cafés, the café allows you to give a little bit of extra money so you can buy coffee for someone else. This chap came in and he thought, “I need a coffee,” so they gave him a coffee. He wandered through the back of the café and there was a meditation class happening, just starting out. He wandered into the class and said, “I never tried this stuff. Can I have a go?” “Sure.” This chap stepped inside but he was shivering, it was really cold. Someone gave him one of their coats. He started feeling warmer. The teacher started doing a meditation all a sitting on the beach. He could feel the warmth, through his body, he started to relax and smile.
Then, he started sharing the story that actually he was contemplating committing suicide just two weeks ago. Everywhere he went, he just felt that there was no connection. Suddenly, he happened to come along this particular class and felt really cared for. He felt very much a part of that little community. He kept coming along for weeks later. I don’t know if he still does, but he ran through all of our different classes, like art for relaxation and yoga or different types of workshops. It’s just a nice example of how when you can create these small communities and if governments and other organization can start investing in creating these communities, it can be so good for everyone’s health and well-being.
That’s really inspiring and beautiful and important, as you say, that we create more opportunities for people from different walks of life to connect. Particularly in the city where so many of us unfortunately are in a hurry, we’re rushing from here to there. We don’t want to make eye contact. We’re weary or suspicious of other people, particularly if they are different to us, if they look or sound different to us. It’s really important work. It’s been such a treat to listen to your stories and to feel your enthusiasm for the work that you’re doing in the world. The final question today is, what are you curious about right now?
To be honest, before we had this conversation, I was very curious about what you do and your connection with this. I’m actually very curious about listening to the other people that you interviewed because you’re a fantastic interviewer. You ask brilliant questions. I’m actually curious to find out more about your work and listening to the other people in this podcast and seeing the connection between us actually and seeing what comes from that. That’s what I’m curious about right now.
Thank you so much. You’re going to enjoy listening to the other guests. Everyone’s brought something really interesting and insightful. It’s been a treat to have you on today. Thank you so much, Shamash for being on the Urban Curiosity podcast today.
Thank you, Clare.