Life’s Great Luxury: Training The Heart and Mind
– Navin Amarasuriya
HappyHappy • Jun 2021
Navin Amarasuriya and Ng Yi-Xian at ELC High School, Bhutan
“I can say with conviction that one of the greatest luxuries in life is having the time, ability and interest to train the heart and mind”
He is insightful, eloquent, empathetic with a heart to serve, passionate about the contemplative practice and, above all, lives with the conviction of his beliefs.
Handing over the reins of his 150-year-old family business, Navin Amarasuriya embarked on a path less trodden to help students, educators and parents learn about science-based practices of well-being.
In 2018, after eight years of service in the family business, he left the Group and is now the Chief International Officer at The Contentment Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in the US offering wellbeing training to schools worldwide.
“Having been lucky to have been born into a 150-year-old family business that specialises in luxury goods, I can say with conviction that one of the greatest luxuries in life is having the time, ability and interest to train the heart and mind,” said Navin.
“It moves the idea of happiness from a fleeting emotion triggered by an external object to one that arises as a pervasive deep sense of flourishing which through practice becomes the soundtrack of your life.”
HappyHappy caught up with Navin to get acquainted with the mindful millennial who shows by inspired example what it means to be still and to listen to the intuition that emanates from that stillness, even if it means leaving his family business to find his true calling.
Here’s what Navin had to share about his journey:
Storytelling & Schools
My first love was really animation and science fiction. A lot of my time as a child was living in universes created by different authors.
It all began with science fiction and animation. A lot of my time as a kid was spent living in far flung universes created in the minds of storytellers.
As I grew up, it dawned on me that every organisation, from a family to a conglomerate, was simply a group of people explicitly and implicitly agreeing on a set of ideas that stemmed from a collective story.
A great teacher of mine, Tong Yee from the Thought Collective, put it eloquently that “organisations are simply expressions of linguistic phenomena”.
After completing my studies as an animator, while in the army, the tension between the expectation of my family’s implicit aspiration and my own voice was muddled. I went off to business school and got a degree in Management.
While I was in university, three special things happened.
First, I bought an old Mini Cooper that reliably broke down at least once every month. That little pile of rust taught me that I love building things, and it’s something that I continue doing till this day.
Second, I happened to catch a talk on the neuroscience of meditation by a geneticist-turned-monk Matthieu Ricard. Instead of presenting meditation in a spiritual way, he expressed the field of contemplative practice in a clear, process-driven way that was validated through the lens of science. That talk led me to meditation.
And finally, I learned about a company called Patagonia that has always lived an examined life, diving deep into their own supply chains and operations to try and minimise their impact on the world.
In between semesters, I would do long cycling backpacking trips across Europe and the US, cycling alone for a few thousand kilometres and meeting people who taught me that those who had the least, usually gave the most.
Bicycling along the east coast of America in winter
Idealism In Reality
Coming back to Singapore with these ideas, I tried to look at how we think about the impact of a company beyond simply just returning value to shareholders.
Patagonia pioneered the whole concept of triple bottom line accounting where they took not just their financial capital but also environment capital and social impact, and really tried to build a company around ethics.
The idealism I had crashed against the reality of the invisible hand of the market and existing ideas on how businesses should be run.
It was during that time that I dived into more engineering projects for fun, as well as meditation. The longer retreats in particular had a real lasting impact on improving the way I was perceiving my own story.
In order to deal with the increasing divide between personal aspirations and work, I took up rock climbing, and coincidentally met someone who changed the entire trajectory of my work. Ng Yi-Xian is the next generation owner of the EtonHouse International Group, and he invited me to one of his schools for a look around. It felt like coming home.
“Ghandi once said, the world has enough for man’s need but not his greed.”
I had happened to come across some research that was trying to unpack how much money a person would need to earn to be happy. This was a fascinating question because while poverty lines are clear around the world, abundance lines are not. There is an entire body of work around hedonic adaptation, where the things we once lusted after become normal, and we look for the next thing. The best way to think about it, is like trying to drink salt water to quench thirst.
Ghandi once said, the world has enough for man’s need but not his greed. The prevailing idea is that once we have satisfied our needs, and work hard to let go of the things that do not bring us well-being, an abundance line emerges. Any additional material gain from that point might sacrifice other forms of capital, like relational capital between family members and friends, or the capital of time.
Most jobs are an exchange of labour for financial capital so, what is the true cost of a big house that takes a lifetime to pay off? I’ve always resonated with the idea that home is not a physical location, but a place where people miss you when you are gone.
After an industrial accident at my family business which was completely my fault and only affected me, it caused me to really examine how I was spending my time, and I submitted my resignation one month later.
Leaving without a plan was like sailing without a map, with only a vague idea that I felt that contemplative practice and meditation were important for life.
Beyond the thousands of kilometres of my bicycle trips, I found that simply closing my eyes and looking within took me even further than I ever thought possible.
Camping in the middle of nowhere
It was during that year that I had time to dive deep with a psychologist I had been seeing for some time to better help me unpack my own story and come to terms with my shadow side as well.
I ended up doing a few retreats that year, before receiving a call from Yi-Xian, offering me a position to help him assess Social and Emotional learning curricula for his group.
In the process I got to learn about the Contentment Foundation and am now serving their mission to bring scientifically-evidenced practices of wellbeing to one billion people on earth in a single generation.
Navin Amarasuriya, Yuka Hosomi, Lisa Flynn & Daniel Cordaro of The Contentment Foundation
“By diving into your own mind and heart, you might discover that intuition speaks in whispers. ”
Connecting The Dots
Looking back over the years to where I am now, if I am anything at all, it is purely because of the altruistic, wise and compassionate teachers I have had along the way.
This flame they lit inside me is something I hope to share with people I meet.
One teacher that we all have as well, is silence.
By diving into your own mind and heart, you might discover that intuition speaks in whispers. These signs arise and disappear, but the more we are attuned to it, the clearer they become.
Victor Frankel once wrote “He who understands why, can endure any how”.
The search for meaning is not linear, and even in my story there were twists and turns that I couldn’t include here.
It’s not easy to discover one’s purpose. It’s something that may evolve and change over time. However, in the dark sea that you have to cross, look for your own north star to guide you.
By approaching this search with curiosity and contentment rather than determination and grasping, one day you might realise what you already know inside you.
“It’s not easy to discover one’s purpose. It’s something that may evolve and change over time. However, in the dark sea that you have to cross, look for your own north star to guide you.”
When people ask me why I think meditation is important, I love to tell the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Back in the 1960s when he moved from Austria to California, people who lifted weights then were seen as performers or simply eccentric.
It was really not something normal people did. You might see it at a circus or a freak-show, but that was about it. Gyms hardly existed in those days.
Yet, 60 years later, there is a gym at almost every corner of every major city in the world.
Over this period, people started to value the benefits of physical exercise which then led to the creation of entire industries, like performance nutrition, adventure sports and even personal training. The list is really endless.
So, in the same way, in another 20 or 30 years, the question about meditation and cultivating practices of the mind and heart will not even have to be asked.
And this mental training will become even more important in an age of distraction, where algorithms fight for our attention and wallets.
A lot of the basis of training our minds lies in philosophical wisdom and traditions that have existed for millennia from almost every culture: from the Stoics in Greece to Abrahamic religions, from Buddhism to Hinduism and everything else in between.
Most of these philosophies and theologies have some variant of “Know Thyself”.
The beautiful thing about being alive at this time is that some of these ancient practices have been validated through the lens of science. They are now being implemented in secular forms in businesses and schools worldwide.
At The Contentment Foundation, mindfulness is the first pillar of wellbeing. The other three pillars are Community, Self-curiosity and Contentment.
“ We are now looking to scale up through partnerships and initiatives who believe that mental health, wellness and positive action are critical to the success of the next generation. ”
The Contentment Foundation faces a very different problem today than we did five years ago.
COVID-19 is causing disruption to human life on earth that has never been seen before on such a massive scale. Billions of people around the world are now suffering from acute daily fear, stress, depression and constant uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring.
Only those who have cultivated practices related to psychological resilience, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and collective compassion will have the skills to navigate this unprecedented disruption to human life.
Today, the international demand for our work caused by the pandemic has far exceeded our team’s capacity.
Fundraising with Contentment Volunteers in Singapore
We are now looking to scale up through partnerships and initiatives who believe that mental health, wellness and positive action are critical to the success of the next generation.
We do this not merely in response to the global crisis we are facing now, but also to meet the challenges that are always on the horizon.
About The Contentment Foundation
The Contentment Foundation is a non-profit organisation that offers scientifically validated wellbeing tools to educational institutions and corporate organisations around the world.
Our mission is to significantly improve the psychological and emotional health of one billion people within one generation.
For four years, we tested, revised, collected data, and published the outcomes of the transformative power of the Four Pillars to change schools and organisations from the inside out.
It was a massive project, but when we formally came out of stealth mode on June 15, 2019, we found ourselves in exactly the right place and the right time on planet earth.
Today, The Contentment Foundation offers child and adult-centred wellbeing curricula to schools internationally.
Our foundational learning platform, The Four Pillars of Wellbeing, is available as a whole-school transformation for teachers, students, and organisations everywhere.
The greatest impact we can have in the world is by supporting the next generation of children.
This is why The Contentment Foundation primarily focuses on school community transformations.
We work with the entire school ecosystem from the classroom to the home so that there is a seamless transition of our work across all areas of life.
We base everything we do on heavily-studied practices that are agnostic to tradition, value system, or spiritual practice. Science leads the way and allows us to integrate into multiple cultures around the world.
We have developed elegant technology solutions that allow all people access to all of our resources 24/7. This dramatically drives down the cost of our program, and our work is typically around 10% of the cost of the average school program, and it offers 10x the resources and tools.
If a school lacks the resources to use digital technology, we get it for them through our donor networks. We provide data analytics tools to every school we work with, and we collect efficacy data on every adult who uses our program.
We reach individuals through our foundational learning platform, which spreads the Four Pillars of Wellbeing digitally to schools.
In this sense, technology plays an important role as it is what equips teachers with the knowledge to disseminate wellbeing in the classrooms.
As teachers go through the Four Pillars of Wellbeing on the platform, they unlock new classroom lessons that they can bring to their students.
Because most of what is done is digital, it allows us not only to scale the reach of The Contentment Foundation, but also monitor and assess the impact we have through surveys conducted with the teachers.
Every onboarded school answers a school-wide survey in which they respond to questions on their personal wellness. We are collecting the largest dataset in history on the wellbeing of children, teachers, and school staff internationally.