Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wealth Management (Having Doesn't Mean Anything)

I spent a couple weeks this month house-sitting at a gorgeous house in a nice part of town.  A house with an outdoor Jacuzzi, a well-stocked fridge, a turret that you can climb up into, and two cute (though high-maintenance) dogs.  A house so great that I think of it in capital letters: The House.  Woe is me, life is so hard.  Seriously, I love my life.

Near the end of first week, one of the occupants of this house popped back in for a couple of days (to do some work), and we ended up having a series of intriguing conversations.

This guy - I'll call him "B" just in case he doesn't feel like appearing in a yoga blog - works as a wealth management consultant.  I'm not sure that I've got the title correct, but I got the gist of what he does: he works with people who are super-wealthy (a very technical term referring to people with so much money that you use at least 8 digits to describe their wealth) and he helps them figure out how to manage these frankly ridiculous amounts of money.  (This explains The House.)  B is a sweet, thoughtful guy, and although his wife (a regular student of mine) has not yet persuaded him to make an appearance in the hot room, he is curious about the whole concept of yoga and Bikram yoga and What Do You Do To My Wife In There.

So B and I poured some wine and got to talking.  He told me - in very general terms, of course, no confidentiality breached - about some of the clients who he's been working with.  One client recently inherited an 8-figure sum of money.  Wow, right?  Well, B was visiting with this guy in the hospital after he had pretty significant, life-threatening heart problems.  The client is only in his 50's, he's got more money than most people even dream of in their lifetimes, and he's lying in a hospital bed.  And B is convinced that the money is what put the client in that hospital bed - the stress of it!

Now let's think about this, seriously.  Beyond, "Oh, boohoo, cry me a river."  What's really wrong with this picture?

B told me that some of his clients are well adjusted and handle their wealth beautifully - giving to charities, doing good works, raising happy families - but many are not.  They are so overwhelmed by their financial wealth that it starts to overshadow everything else.  He said that when he first meets with a client, he makes sure to ask them some simple questions: What are you doing to take care of yourself?  (Are you eating properly?  Are your kids happy?  How are your grandkids?  How's your stress?)  Are you healthy and happy?

He says that these questions will stump the new clients every single time.  They haven't thought about it. "Or maybe they just never expected me to ask them those questions."

Wealth management!  What does it mean, really?  What is wealth?

These are such great questions that are so easy to overlook.

Here's the yoga perspective.  First, let's just suggest that "stress is the root cause of all diseases, even communicable ones."  I believe that's from Bikram's guru, Bishnu Ghosh.  Very old idea, definitely relevant to the questions.

Second - and I know you've heard this one before, but that won't stop me - "Having doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to use it."  That's from Bikram.  All Bikram teachers - and many Bikram students - have heard that line so many times that sometimes it almost loses its meaning, going all singsong like a nursery rhyme.  Boss calls out, "Having doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to...?" and every teacher trainee still awake shouts out "Use it!" with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on how many hours she slept that night and how many times Bikram has already asked the same question that week.  (Yes, of course this is primitive brainwashing.  "I wash your brain!  It is filthy!")  End result: we can all repeat those words in our sleep.

And still, that statement is probably one of the truest things ever said.  We have everything - food, clothing, shelter, water, possibly $15,000,000 - and still we're stressed and unhappy.  In other parts of the world, the people have almost nothing, and many of them still manage to be happy.  What are we missing?  We have everything we need, but we don't know how to use it, so we still see problems everywhere.  I told all of this to B, local neighborhood wealth manager, and he was nodding his head in absolute agreement.  He'd never heard it before - all news to him! - and he thought it was spot on.  From what he'd seen with all his clients, all these lost souls with incredible bank account balances, he had pretty much figured out the same thing.

What's the answer?  If you want to learn to use everything you have, what should you do?

Well, that's easy: yoga.

I am a yoga teacher, what did you expect.

But seriously.  It doesn't have to be yoga, but you have to do something to take care of yourself.  That's first and foremost.  If you're not taking good care of yourself, then you'll be no use to anyone else.  Forget about self-sacrifice and just be good to yourself.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that your problems will all be solved if you can just get something else - some more money, a different job, a new relationship, a new apartment.  Yes, some of those things are great.  (I got a new job and it changed my life.  I'm moving to a new apartment and I'm very happy about it.)  But you can't keep waiting to be happy tomorrow, because then you'll always be waiting.  Stop that.  You have so much already, I guarantee it.  Wherever you are, whoever you are, you have something.  Most likely, you already have everything you'll ever need.  You have your body.  You have your mind.  You have your spirit.  Those three things will be with you for your entire life.  That is your wealth.

Just figure out how to use it.

Didn't I tell you in the beginning that I love my life?  I meant it.  I really did.  I have a job that doesn't feel like work.  I have amazing friends, family, and teachers.  I have a great spine.  I have a messy apartment with some used furniture.  I have some ice cream in the fridge (mostly gone).  I have blue car (a Toyota Corolla named Callie), and in the trunk I have a hula hoop, a beach chair, a grassy towel, some road maps, cashews and Pedialyte (in case of emergency) and a kite.  I have a sunburn from a weekend on a boat.  I have a gig in Rhode Island at the end of this week and some new CD's for the drive.  What more could I ask for?  I have everything.

So do you.

Monday, August 8, 2011

90 Minutes off the Grid

I read a great article from the Wall Street Journal this weekend about "The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do."  It was written by Scott Adams - the creator of Dilbert - and I'm very sorry that I can't link you to the full text, because apparently WSJ articles become "subscriber content" after a couple of days.  But here's how the article began:

We've won the war on boredom! If you have a smartphone in your pocket, a game console in the living room, a Kindle in your backpack and an iPad in the kitchen, you never need to suffer a minute without stimulation. Yay!
But wait—we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they're right. I've noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.

There's been plenty of other text - whole books! - written on the perils of modern overstimulation.  It seems that our brains are being significantly rewired, if not completely turned into mush, by our relentless addictions to Facebook, text messaging, Twitter, and the like.

But Scott Adams puts a slightly different twist on the idea.  He basically says - You know, it's too bad we never have to get bored anymore, because our brains do their best inventing when they are temporarily under-stimulated.  Then he says - In a world where no one every gets bored and creativity dies, all the movies are going to be lifeless, derivative sequels, all the television is going to be unscripted nonsense, all the politics is going to consist of tedious, partisan bickering.... oh, wait.  That sounds suspiciously familiar.  Oh damn.

We've been raised to multi-task, and I am not sure this is so great after all.  I find that I have to deliberately force myself to single-task.  If I want to read a book, I first have to power down the laptop completely and go sit on the porch.  If I'm even in the same room as my little MacBook, the actual book will end up on the losing side of the battle.  And I love books!  (I have been reading a lot this summer.)  I always feel great after focusing all of my attention on one thing - and I like doing it! - but single-tasking takes a conscious act of will.

Now here's where yoga comes to the rescue!  For at least 90 minutes of your day - assuming a 90 minute yoga class, of course - you are forced to turn off your fucking iPhone and pay attention to just one thing. Off the grid.  No email, no updates, no texting, no nothing - just you, your body, and the teacher's voice.

You're still being stimulated, of course, but in a totally different way, because your attention has to stay in the room.  As Bikram says, we are trying to "bring the mind back into the body," which is the hardest thing in the world to do, for even one second.

Maybe you don't achieve that perfect meditation.  (Who does?)  That's okay.  You'll still get the benefits that you need, because at least you've removed yourself from all that outside chatter.  It's a 90 minute mental vacation, in more ways than one.  Maybe sometime during the second set of pranayama, after repeating the same inhale-exhale exercise fifteen times, your brain gets a little bit bored.  Well, Mr. Adams is saying that this is also good.  This is what your brain needs in order to be creative.

This surely helps to explain why so many great thinkers are famous for retreating from civilization.  For Henry David Thoreau (the obvious example, sorry), even working at a pencil factory in Concord, MA in the 1840's was too much of a distraction.  God knows what he would make of the internet!  Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him out to Walden Pond, but you know, those long epics can get boring after a while.  Maybe he got bored with Arjun and Krishna's eloquent but repetitive back-and-forth after a while (many yoga teacher trainees can relate to this feeling) and just sat around staring at the trees, and that's what gave him all his beautiful new ideas.

Of course, now it's 2011, and it's tough enough for us to switch off a laptop for more than a day, nevermind building a log cabin on a freaking pond in Massachusetts.  But at least we can go to yoga and do the same exact sequence again, listening to the same exact words as last time, freed from the outside world for 90 minutes.

Haven't you ever had a really great idea in the middle of yoga class?  One of those fantastic ideas that drops into your brain from out of the blue?  Afterwards, you can't say what made you think of it.  You didn't even have to go looking for it.  It just came to you.  That's because your brain was in a different state.

So please, let's just get all the policy makers, authors, CEOs, musicians, senators, script writers, television producers, teachers - and hell, even the comic book artists - and shove them in a hot room for 90 minutes!  Then we'll see if we can't get some creative new ideas around here.