2019: Habits, happiness and Hindi singers

Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing, that’s what they say now. That’s the only way to break an old habit or form a new habit. Will power almost never delivers the change we seek.

I’ve been in the habit of being unhappy. I don’t think it’s my normal state. It was simply a natural response to a painful, un-controllable situation. It was incremental. I knew that my sleep was short, my dreams were dark, and I was tired when I woke up every day. Each day it was one foot in front of the other, the bus to the train, the meeting followed up by email, and the dinner on the table. Certainly too, I knew other people bear greater burdens than I ever had to. Eventually, I could sense suffering around me in the world all the time. In the end I couldn’t remember what happy was like. What does happiness even mean in such a world? That’s how I felt, that happiness was indulgent, selfish.

But by the beginning of this year much about my situation had changed for the better. Because my mother and sister both died in 2018 my responsibilities had lightened. Awful to say, but this was a release. Because my brother now had an NDIS plan providing a higher level of support, I was not as pivotal to his well-being, so even more weight was lifted off my shoulders. And my daughter was happy in her studies and sailing out into the world on a rising tide of confidence. All in all, my situation was the most stable and positive it had been for over decade. It felt like the right time to put effort into feeling better, improving the health of my emotions and my body. I accessed a post-grad psychology clinic for inexpensive weekly visits and I made monthly appointments with an excellent physio who specialises in Feldenkrais methods. I went to my experts with this message: that I was unhappy and unfit and that I would be striving to address bad habits. For a few months I made slow, fitful progress. I was relying on rations of will power and keeping my problems always at the surface of my mind. Goose.

I started losing motivation. Talking about emotions can lead to a morass of interpretation and complicated visual diagrams. And I found Feldenkrais work requires painstaking, detailed internal processing. My efforts seemed flimsy. I was frustrated. Breakthroughs were slow-to-completely-stalled. I bottomed-out I guess. Then I realised something very basic. That I was looking at my well-being from the viewpoint of my deficits. This reminded me of a story called ‘The Owl Service’ (Alan Garner, 1967) that I read at the end of primary school. In this book a haunting was unleashed by a young girl tracing a pattern off a set of china. She chose to trace the pattern of owls from the service and this summoned a dangerous and violent haunting. Her mistake was not choosing to trace the flowers. When she did that in the end there was a great healing. So, having failed in my first efforts to break old habits, two things happened. Firstly, I concluded that I do actually experience a rich range of emotions, the issue is that I find it hard to accept them. Surely if I can learn to be kinder and gentler with myself, I may be able to see my emotions as valuable and natural. So, my ambition now is to reduce stress, especially as I grow older. Secondly, I asked, what actually makes me happy? Here I had some real luck. I ran into some Hindi movies on SBS and started to follow a thread of filmi songs that started with ‘Chaiyaa Chaiyaa’ (A.R. Rahman, 1998) and led to the discovery of lots of beautiful singing (often by Sufi singers) and infectious Bollywood dance tracks. I really liked the way their commercial appeal still emphasised the soulfulness of the singers. I started to do stretching routines and dancing to Indian and Pakistani songs every day. My physio helped me to leverage this pleasure into healthy movement. Music makes it easy to keep moving, easy to build a new habit.

I know it’s never going to be easy for me to be consistently positive and kind to myself. Early lessons are hard to shift. But I see now that happiness is important. Energy, laughter, a sense of proportion - happiness offers many benefits. And I find real happiness in being immersed in music. While I’m inside the music I’m working out how to embody the relationships and patterns in the music by singing and dancing. I’ve been doing this since early childhood. This is me. This is how I experience and express my happiness. It's a joy. It may be easiest for me to find that on stage surrounded by great musicians and supported by audiences, but I think now, that it’s even more important to find it every morning in my lounge room. I started out the year looking for answers in other places. Naturally enough, the answers were inside me all the time.