Sunaina Chugani begins the preparation for the event she is hosting in her Upper West Side apartment on Thursday, Feb. 23, almost two days before the actual event. She starts by buying the ingredients for the food she is going to cook and by cleaning up the space that will soon be inhabited by strangers and friends alike. On the day of, a small group of people make their way toward her apartment in anticipation. Small cushions are placed on the floor; a sign is adhered to her front door and all seats in the apartment are positioned in the shape of a circle.
Chugani is a marketing professor at Baruch College who teaches consumer behavior. She conducts research into her subject matter and how it can affect consumer buying habits; her main goal being to figure out how to prolong consumer happiness and satisfaction.
“I study consumer behavior, but I like to think of it consumer well-being,” said Chugani. “One of the major things I study is hedonic adaptation, which is the process by which happiness fades. I study what speeds that up and slows that down. I think it’s a fascinating topic.”
Chugani started teaching at Baruch three and a half years ago, with her fourth year to be completed in June. Her primary job is the research that she conducts at the college, but teaching has become a big part of her life since it gives her a more direct way of impacting people.
One of the big ideas that Chugani lives by and brings into the classroom is the practice of gratitude. Hedonic adaptation is unavoidable. Individuals are constantly cycling through situations and objects in their lives, so it is no surprise that the happiness drawn from new things eventually fades. The practice of gratitude is how Chugani combats negative hedonic adaptation, since it helps keep her thankful for everything she has—a practice she shares with her students.
“Everything eventually becomes a status quo. The practice of gratitude helps me look at things and appreciate them. Let’s say I’ve adapted to this nice studio, I can practice gratitude and say, ‘look at how warm it is, look at how cozy it is.’ It brings the studio back to the forefront so you can appreciate it,” said Chugani.
Besides being a full-time researcher and professor at Baruch, Chugani puts time aside to take part in a very interesting organization that complements her research perfectly. Chugani is a part of Awakin, an organization that focuses on self-awareness and mindfulness. Awakin strives to bring a sense of stillness to the lives of people living inside the buzz of a constantly moving city.
The way that Awakin works is through a series of hosts, each of which offers his or her living space and hospitality once a week to whoever wants to attend. Anyone who chooses to come is sent an email with the location and the time of commencement of the event. Each person arrives at the door, which greets them with a sign that says, “Meditation in progress, please come in.” Anyone who comes in at the specified time spends a full hour meditating in unguided stillness; each attendant sits in the most comfortable position, trying to calm his or her thoughts and bodies.
After the hour of meditation, a carefully selected passage is read, followed by the group sharing their thoughts and reflections on the passage. The circle of people is then served food by the host, which is eaten in a 10-minute period of silence in reverence for the food. Afterward, there is chatter while the food is cleaned up.
The point of Awakin is to give anyone who needs a respite from stress, work or any part of his or her life. The practice of gratitude along with the meditation helps attendees remember to slow down and relax in their lives.
Chugani encountered Awakin when she was finishing her doctorate at the University Texas at Austin. One of her professors brought Nipun Mehta, the founder of ServiceSpace, an umbrella organization of Awakin, to a class.
“Nipun came to give a talk. He was hoping that tons of people would come but there were only four of us there, all Ph.D. students, none of the faculty came. But I was just so mesmerized by what Nipun was saying about harnessing the inherent generosity in every human being. He really combined activism with spirituality, where the way you can make a change in the world is by harnessing the spirituality in everyone. I was truly moved by that,” said Chugani.
Awakin, looked at through this lens, is an experiment in generosity. The host opens up his or her home to strangers and friends alike and offers them a meal. What Chugani truly likes about this experiment is that, besides bringing an evening of peace to some people’s lives, it reminds her of her values.
“It’s really easy to get carried away wanting so many things. It’s easy to feel unsatisfied and wanting more and more. What I especially like about Awakin is that it reminds me that there is an inner world and your happiness depends more on your inner world than it does on the outer world,” explained Chugani.
“Our ability to thrive together in this interconnected world is dependent on our ability to keep kindness, generosity and self-awareness alive. The more self- aware we are at a deeper level, the fuller we can live our lives, the happier we can be, and ultimately, the happier we can make the people around us.”
Chugani mentioned how Awakin reminds her that life is not solely about the publications she hopes to get, nor about all the bumps in life—life is about right now, how beautiful the current moments are.
Through Awakin, Chugani found the courage to bring a lot of these ideas into her classroom. She recognizes the importance of spreading these messages and does her best to interweave them into her lectures. Although she acknowledges that commerce is major in today’s world and consumer wants are insatiable, she reminds her students about the power of enough and the power of gratitude.
Chugani plans to move from New York to California at the end of the Spring semester. There, she intends to focus more on her teaching and less on her research, but she will certainly be continuing with Awakin. Although Chugani is moving, the values she lives by and speaks about will remain through Awakin.
An hour of meditation with strangers may seem daunting to some, but a simple conversation with the professor could be enough to encourage more students to try it. Perhaps Awakin will be as life-changing as it was for Chugani for whoever takes the leap and attends a session.