Mukesh Vassen

Mukesh Vassen’s day job is as legal adviser to the Speaker of the House in Parliament. Any spare time is spent doing service, teaching Art of Living courses and the accompanying practice of Sudarshan Kriya (“kriya”, a breathing technique that cleanses and harmonises the physical, mental and emotional levels).

The Art of Living is a humanitarian NGO, founded in the early ’80s by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with the vision of creating a violence- and stress-free society. This is Mukesh’s story…

I grew up in Cape Town and was a young kid activist during the apartheid days. My dad was an attorney and used to represent most of the political prisoners, so the police used to watch us a lot. We got many death threats. I left home when I was 13, which was when they came to arrest me. I saw so many people die as a teenage boy; I remember how they killed a two-year-old child and said they thought it was a dog. And the Trojan horse thing, where they hid in boxes and killed a couple of kids. All of this left me with a lot of trauma and anger.

I went back to school when I was 19. After that I went to UCT. I have an arts, law and honours degree – plus a post-grad in peace research from Oslo. Having three degrees doesn’t mean you can cope with your life. After varsity I had a personal crisis which left me in quite a state. I had carried these feelings of anger with me over the years, to remind me of what I needed to do. I hadn’t yet realised that you don’t need to be in suffering to change the world.

Someone suggested I do the Art of Living (AOL) course during this difficult time, which is something I ordinarily would’ve avoided at all costs. I did it, and in six days felt a complete 180º turnaround. Everything dropped. University had made me very analytical and serious. After I did the course, my smile came back. I started to feel like a little kid; I didn’t walk, I bounced.

Until six months ago my job was as a legal adviser to Parliament, ensuring that the laws passed are in line with the constitution. My work requires a lot of focus and attention as you deal with very diverse matters. Now I’ve been seconded to the office of the Speaker, which is quite a bit more intense. I also advise the joint committee of ethics and members’ interests.

Building this country was important, so seeing that the values of the constitution are reflected in the laws that are passed makes a big difference. I like what I do – it’s a meaningful job. I usually work 12-hour days and on top of that I’m teaching AOL courses most evenings alongside my wife Gerlinde. I also organise international courses and handle the media for AOL. It’s interesting to see how my capacity keeps expanding. I can see my potential unfolding in my own life. I always joke that I became a teacher to show that if I can change, anybody can change.

I became a teacher in 2006 and I’ve taught over 5 000 people probably. Last year between January and June we taught 1 000 people, 700 of whom were kids. We taught the kids at the Cape Academy of Maths, Science and Technology – a school for gifted kids who come from impoverished communities.

Everybody’s looking for something, and that something is peace of mind. Sometimes they’re not aware that it’s peace of mind they’re looking for, but behind every desire is the wanting to be happy. And the AOL philosophy is very simple: it’s just to see a smile on every face, and to empower the individual to serve society. When your stress level decreases, your sense of belonging increases.

Reluctantly I accept that I am a leader. Somehow I have the ability to inspire people. I was a student leader as a kid, so when I did something naughty people would point to me and say, “you should be more responsible.” Now it’s different. I want to share what I’ve experienced and give people the tools to be able to experience that sense of peace. If we all did that the world would change.

Spirituality helps inculcate ethical leadership in business. It’s not something out there. It’s an innate feeling. From dealing with yourself you are able to help other people. Leadership is a willingness to stretch out your hand to help someone else and make a difference.

My goal is to spread AOL’s message to as many people as I can. And the beautiful thing is that it won’t conflict with anything you believe – it’ll just make you more effective in what you do. We have courses endorsed by Olympic athletes, specialised courses for members of Parliament and a conference of corporate culture for ethical leadership in business, held annually at the European summit.

I go to work so I can teach these courses; it’s what gives my life meaning. It’s like I was looking for something, and now I’ve found what I’m looking for. I have a guru in my life, which doesn’t mean I’m not going to have stormy seas. It just means I’m not going to capsize. He sometimes rocks the boat for me too.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has touched 350 million people, and he’s taught more than 350 000 prisoners worldwide. When there’s a trauma, food and medicine’s not enough. You need to deal with the mind. We don’t change what’s external; we kindle something inside.

I want to make a difference in this country. Coming from a childhood that was about campaigning for the right to vote, so much has changed. There’s a lot of beauty in the transformation that has happened. South Africa has a lot of potential for growth, and I’m optimistic.

It’s inspiring to see the different types of leadership that have emerged in a country where people were always made to feel that they had no place. The beauty in our diversity is that it makes for better leadership. In the arts, in politics, in literature, in everything – it’s all a contested terrain, which ultimately leads to better decisions.

Lastly, I’d like to share some knowledge…

There was a wise man who walked into a theatre and told a joke. Everybody laughed. A minute later he repeated the joke and a few people laughed. He repeated the joke a third time and nobody laughed. And then he asked, “If you can’t keep laughing for the same thing, why do you keep crying for the same thing?”

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l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.