Take Heart, America, You Are Not Declining

On yoga, mindfulness, and the pursuit of internal excellence in business and society.
Take Heart, America, You Are Not Declining

Before he died in 2011, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs made arrangements to distribute gift copies of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi—which has sold four million copies and has been translated into 50 languages—to everyone who came to his funeral. In fact, in a 2014 column in The New York Times, Anita Gates writes that many people took note of the fact that “the only book on Steve Jobs’ iPad was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.&rdquo

I believe Jobs was onto something big. First published in 1946, Yogananda’s book has been continuously in print for more than 50 years. It remains a seminal work in the field of Eastern religion, but its teachings have nothing to do with race, religion, gender, or national origin. Rather, it emphasizes the attributes of emotional intelligence, emotional excellence, self-awareness, and internal excellence for all. The term internal excellence—or what some call emotional intelligence—describes the extent to which we pursue meaning and embrace positive emotions in our lives. Autobiography underscores how important internal excellence is to health and well-being, not just for business, but for individuals and for our society as a whole.

Likewise, the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text, shares an important insight from Sri Krishna, a religious figure born in the third millennium B.C. In the Gita, Krishna explains that all cultures, no matter how great, eventually decline before they rise again. However, the rate at which societies decline, Krishna says, is the same as the rate at which the level of internal excellence among its citizens declines.

In other words, if an individual, business, or society makes a concerted effort to enhance internal excellence, it can postpone its decline. In fact, a society also can accelerate its subsequent rise, even if it has been in the state of decline for thousands of years.

When we look at societies around the world, it might seem like we’re seeing a decline in progress—the last few years have been challenging, to say the least. Major media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, National Public Radio, and others have regularly reported on the disheartening state of affairs in the U.S. Its two branches of government are at loggerheads on a daily basis. Political parties in countries around the world—from Germany to the U.K.—also are engaged in rhetoric that is leading to the deterioration of relationships between people of different political backgrounds.

So, are these indications that the decline of America and other countries in the West has already begun? Maybe not.

At one point in the Gita, Krishna explains to his student Arjuna the positive impact of yoga, and he prods Arjuna to engage in the struggle to rise from negative emotions to positive emotions. I believe America and other Western nations can do the same.

Why? Because I see that more people are embracing emotional intelligence, a term first coined by social psychologists Peter Salovey of Yale University and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire in 1990. Daniel Goleman subsequently published his book Emotional Intelligence in 1995, which sold five million copies and was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half. Goleman and others have written extensively about the importance of emotional intelligence for self-awareness and leadership. The Harvard Business Review cites Goleman’s article on emotional intelligence as one of the best in its archives. Several major corporations now even have Chief Mindfulness Officers! Yale also focuses on this work through its Center for Emotional Intelligence, whose website boils down its mission to two words: “Emotions matter.”

In October 2018, my guru H.H. Gurumahan and I paid a visit to Mary Ann Borgeson, the Douglas County Commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, and president of the National Association of Counties (NACo). NACo is a membership organization of county governments across the United States; the organization’s members represent about 80 percent of the country’s population. I am a Democrat, and Borgeson is a Republican. Even so, we were able to bridge our political divide. She appreciated my proposed framework for national transformation through a reduction in negativity, and she even posted my paper “Making America Great Again: It’s Not the Red vs. Blue Thing” on her Facebook page.

Enhancing the internal excellence of an entire nation might seem like a modern scientific problem. However, the tools for increasing positive emotions have been known for thousands of years: They include the practice of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga.

I hope that society’s renewed emphasis on mindfulness and emotions is enough to make a modern soul look inward—especially in our business schools. As educators, we are in the position to teach college students how to be better human beings, and we should give them this training before they become leaders. Sure, we teach college courses on ethics and values, but while these courses are useful, they are insufficient. To promote national, and even global success, we and our students both must change ourselves from within. That’s why training in mediation and yoga should be a mandatory part of our business programs.

I recently visited Gurumahan’s ashram in Thirumurthi Hills in Tamil Nadu, India. There, children who had practiced yoga raised their levels of self-awareness, internal excellence, and emotional excellence in ways that science might not easily explain. This small example suggests that, if we teach our students to embrace the tools that help cultivate internal excellence, we will educate a different class of leaders who exhibit greater empathy, demonstrate higher levels of positivity, and possess enhanced access to their intuition. With these leaders at the helm, western countries will have the means to postpone their decline for a long time—and developing countries will have the means to accelerate their rise.

Pradeep B. Deshpande is president and CEO of Six Sigma and Advanced Controls in Louisville, Kentucky, and a visiting professor of management at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics in Lexington. To read more on this topic, look for his article “The Secret of Exemplary Performance” in BizEd’s September/October issue.

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