How does one process trauma and grief? How can one person rise above the trauma of 9/11? In this episode, Whitney Lauritsen and Jason Wrobel sit down and have a heartfelt discussion with author, entrepreneur, and chocolatier, Kushal Choksi. Kushal talks about his experiences dealing with the loss and grief of 9/11 and the resilience of the human soul. Overcoming it, he then discusses the intimate connection between the breath and the mind and the secrets in our breath. Kushal also highlights why we need to pause and take stock of life and why taking shortcuts is not the best approach. What is more, he takes us to his newest venture into chocolate. Join him in this inspiring conversation for more.
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Breathing Through The Trauma Of 9/11 To Enjoy Life With Kushal Choksi
Our guest is joining us from New York City. New York City is a city that I’ve had a lot of fondness for throughout my life. It’s a city that a lot of Americans or people around the world have a passion for. Sometimes positive passion, sometimes negative passion. It depends on your viewpoint. Growing up, it was only a few hours from where I lived. I would go there oftentimes when I was visiting my family in New Jersey and I would get excited to go into the city.
I wanted to study at NYU. We’ve mentioned it a few times on the show because Jason has a similar crossover with NYU. When I was gearing up to study film production, I applied to the Tisch School of Arts. I didn’t get into college there and I was really sad. I went to college in Boston instead. The very first week of college was when 9/11 happened. It’s amazing how anytime I talk about 9/11, I feel emotional about it. Many people that have a visceral memory of what that day was like may react the same way.
It was fascinating for me given my passion for New York and the desire to live there, and then be confronted with truly a life-changing event for the entire world, and the ripple effect that that’s had on us. We’ll get into why that story resonates as we learn more about our guest. Another crossover was in 2019, I was attending this event called Fancy Food Show. I’m going around and trying a lot of different products. I came across one that stood out.
It’s interesting now when I look back over my notes. It might have even been the Natural Products Expo because this is a note from Spring 2019. I recall it being Fancy Food Show. Regardless, I tried some of the most incredible chocolates I’ve ever had. I’m at a loss for words to describe the hot chocolate that I had. I had this wonderful experience with the person at this company named Elements Truffles. That is the company that our guest founded and runs with his wife. I’m excited to explore all the different facets of this amazing guest that we have. Welcome to the show, Kushal. Thank you so much for being here.
When we heard about you, I was reading through your story and your book called On A Wing And A Prayer. It is a book that I can’t wait to read because I have a deep fascination and a lot of emotions around 9/11, how that impacted me as a college student in Boston and had a ripple effect on so many people’s lives. When I read that, I thought, “I can’t wait to talk to this man and hear more about his experience.” Thank you for being here. Thank you for writing that book. Thank you for creating Elements Truffles. That’s the backstory of why I cannot wait to connect more with you here.One begins to question, what is it you're really doing here? What is the point? Click To Tweet
Thank you. As you’re speaking, that emotion that is coming through this connection and the electronic platform is touching me straight into my heart. Thank you for setting up this platform that’s so authentic and open. Thank you for having me here.
You’re welcome. It might get emotional for me. For some people, it can be an uncomfortable thing. One thing I’m curious about is speaking of books about 9/11, one book I read that I was so moved by is called The Unthinkable. Do you know about this book?
I’m afraid no. I have not read that book.
I was almost wondering if you had been featured in it of some sort because it’s about how people survive disasters. In the book, the first example they give is 9/11. It’s a phenomenal book sharing all of these tragedies that have happened and how people physically survived them, but it doesn’t get into the emotional side of surviving something like that. To my recollection, 9/11, I was fortunate to not know anyone who was in the towers as you were. You were in the tower at the time. Is that correct?There has to be more to life than what meets the eye Click To Tweet
At the time when the first plane hit the north tower, I was on the mezzanine floor which was shared across both the north and south tower. I was in the north tower part of the floor.
It’s beyond comprehension to me to hear that. Even though I’ve watched and read so much about that event, The Unthinkable being an example where they had interviewed and compiled stories of people who had survived, it still feels unbelievable that someone like you had made it through that event. Also, you made it through in many remarkable ways to shift your life into all these different directions like Elements Truffles. I don’t even know how to start this conversation because I could just listen to you talk about this subject for hours.
What is something that you want to share about that experience? Maybe how it correlates with some current events. For example, we’re hearing a lot about what’s happening in Afghanistan and that is tied to 9/11 in some ways. I’m curious how you’ve been feeling during this specific time in August 2021. What type of emotions is it bringing up for you and thoughts? How is that guiding your process as you’re releasing this book on your experiences?
At the end of the day, all the losses and the tragic events appear different on the surface but viscerally, they somehow evoke the same emotions. They create the same discomfort straight in your gut, which makes you uncomfortable. Different people process it differently. I’ve had my fair share of going through it. I’ve had almost twenty years to process it. We’ll talk more about the tools and techniques that have helped me a lot.
You’re right, with the contemporary events and what’s happening now in the world, you can’t help but go back to that feeling. First, it was the pandemic. We’re right through the middle of it and the same things kept coming back. The way I handled them was very different but in a sense, how it impacts your consciousness is no different. One begins to question, “What am I really doing here? What is the whole point of all this?”
There are two aspects to it. One is the emotional aspect where you process certain emotions, whether it’s grief or discomfort. The other aspect of it is questioning the status quo that ensues after you experienced this. You can only be sad for so long. Your emotions constantly change. Every two and half days, your emotion changes. You can be sad for longer but after two and a half days, it might shift and then you might experience that same sadness again. With those changes, you can experience that for a perpetual time. If you’re always in that emotion for a long period of time, you may never even experience that because it’s like eating the same sweet thing again and again. You stop tasting it.
These are the times that make us question the big picture. It makes us question, “There has to be more to life than what meets the eye. There has to be a bigger purpose. What is my purpose to be here? Am I here to just do a 9 to 5? Am I here to chase bigger Wall Street bonuses? Am I here to run companies and make them successful? Am I doing the right thing with my time?” Everybody has a finite time on this planet.
Times like these in my life have given me an opportunity to take a step back and pause a bit. Otherwise, you’re entrenched in the current of time, getting swept away by what you’re doing, not able to tell day from night and weeks from months. Such events have created an impact on me where it has gotten me to pause, take stock of my life, and be like, “I’m going to pause here and see if I’m on the right track. Am I doing what I’m here to do? Do I even know what I’m here to do?”
My curiosity in this experience you’re describing is in times of shock, traumatic experience and massive change, it can be easy for human beings to want to cling to the familiar. Whereas you’re describing an opportunity where there can be this quantum shift in introspection looking at whether our lives, actions and choices are aligned with our highest values, highest ethics and conscience. In times where it’s so scary, unfamiliar and uncertain, it’s natural to be like, “I need to hold on to what I know. I need to hold on to my job. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the financial system. Everything could collapse. What’s going to happen with the dollar? Maybe I should invest in Bitcoin. What’s happening?”For any thought and emotion that goes on in our mind, there's a corresponding breath. Click To Tweet
It’s a natural tendency for humanity to want to cling tightly to the familiar. What you’re bringing up is this opportunity to do a deeper, more authentic and honest level of introspection. How do we move past the comfort and the desire to cling to the familiar to get to that deeper layer of questioning and introspection? What tools did you use? What tools do you recommend for other people to do that to let go over the reins a little bit?
It is not a matter of effort. It’s not doing, it’s happening. When 9/11 happened to me, I went into that state of going back to my comfort zone, which was retrieved from the world. I didn’t start thinking, “What’s my purpose?” I wasn’t there. I was in a state of shock. In the subsequent days, I didn’t know what I was doing. In that state of discomfort, you retrieve to that thing where you find the most comfort. For me, it was being with myself.
I didn’t even talk about it. I would avoid this conversation. Everybody knew I had made it out so they would say, “What happened?” I would simplify the narrative and say, “I stepped out. I was lucky. I was fortunate.” I end the story quickly and not wanting to talk about it because it made me relive those moments. That discomfort came back in. I retrieved back to my comfort zone and it was not easy. In that comfort zone, there was a void that I’d experienced and never felt before. It was a different kind of void. It’s like a feeling of vacuum. It’s like somebody hit you with the hammer on the head and you don’t know. You’re seeing stars like, “What is happening?”
It was an interesting dichotomy that I was experiencing on one side. Soon after that, I was experiencing some gratitude. I was experiencing, “Yes, I made it out.” There was a new lease to my life and it was an opportunity to finish all the unfinished business. I wanted to do it all, achieve this and achieve that. I’m wanting to enjoy it all because I have a new life. On the other hand, I don’t want to call it dispassion but it was more of disinterest at some level. I was like, “Yes but then what’s the point of it? I go pursue this but the curtains may be drawn at any point. Is there any purpose for doing that? What if I was one of them that perished that day?”
To fill that void, I started traveling and going to exotic places. My wife and I took a fifteen-day-long backpacking trip into Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego. We say, “Let’s go find ourselves.” It was more coming from me and she was being supportive. I said, “This is where I need to be,” because I need to get that thing to fill that void. I was looking for that juice or that impulse from somewhere. Professionally, I was like, “The hell with this 9 to 5 comfortable job. Let me quit that thing and join a startup. Maybe that’s more thrilling.”Just being aware can unlock different dimensions. Click To Tweet
I quit my rather promising and successful Wall Street job to join a fund that was just two people and no track record. I tried to do all these different things with food, alcohol, travel and work. At every point I would go, it would prove to be a momentary respite or some distraction, and then I would come back to that feeling of void. I would go back, experience something, experience the high, and then as it wore thin, I would come back to where I started.
That was an unsettling feeling that nothing was working. What do I do? I tried everything within my limits of resources to go after it, but everything was proving to be a temporary distraction for the mind. At the end of the day, I kept going back to that feeling of void, that hole in the soul. New York City is a very resilient city. It forces you to live that American dream. It pushes you to fit in. Whether it was my high-paced Wall Street job or was it just my vanity, I don’t know what it was. I was probably showing up to say, “I’m fine. I’m okay. I moved past it. It was a matter of the past. I’m traveling and I’m doing this. I’m done with it.”
From an onlooker’s point of view, I had come out of it, but I knew within myself that I had not. I was not ready to accept that. I was not ready to acknowledge that or definitely not ready to show that to my near and dear ones. Even with my wife, I would not talk about it. When I was writing this book, some friends said, “What is it about?” I talked about how I started from the beginning and they’re like, “I didn’t know you had gone through all this.” A lot of my close friends didn’t know what I had gone through.
From that state of trying everything but not finding any real gratification and coming back to that void, someone suggested to me this SKY Breath Meditation technique. He said, “You should try and do this breathwork and meditation.” I’m originally from India. It’s in my culture but I was like, “Show me the data first.” It’s part of my training. If I told my manager that I’m pulling this trade based on my intuition and my gut feeling, I would get whacked. I had to do a proper analysis, a thorough risk profiling, and see what are the pros and cons. As long as the probability of succeeding was more even marginally than failure, I could commit to that.
In this case, there was no data. I’m talking about early 2000 when there were no meditation apps. There was no smartphone. There were not many influencers and nobody was talking about breathwork. Yoga and spirituality were considered something out there worthy of retirement. All these things kept me at the bay of like, “I don’t need it. I’ll do it when the time is right.” That’s what good friends are. He didn’t buy into my resistance, “Don’t do it if you don’t want to do it but you have to try it.”
When I tried that breathwork for the first time, it was as if the missing piece of the puzzle fell into place. All of that I was holding on to, I was able to let go of it. I was guarded. I was like, “There has to be something more. Is that some sort of voodoo here? What’s going on?” I was not able to accept that I was feeling so good. I was feeling myself and so at ease. Intellectual concepts are one thing, and then your experiences are yours to keep. For that experience, I kept coming back to it.
You asked what were the tools and techniques, SKY Breath was this real tool that came in handy to me, which gave me this ability to move past. They say that when you go through a trauma, there are different stages. It’s denial and then it’s all these unpleasant things in between like depression, and then you eventually come to acceptance. This technique helped me jump across from denial where I was in the beginning to say, “I’m cool. I’m fine,” straight to acceptance without having to go through the intermediate painful aspects that many of the people I know have gone through. One sentence answer to that would be, breathwork kept me afloat throughout and more.
It’s amazing that you’re sharing this, not just here on the show but in your book, because we are going through a traumatic time globally. There are things happening all across the world and sometimes we have this cognitive dissonance. Even during the pandemic, we can experience that. Traumatic things impact us all in different ways and sometimes it becomes so much. We try to run and cope with all these things that you’re describing.The most misunderstood concept is the difference between doing and being. Click To Tweet
Specifically, the tool of breathwork, which Jason and I are both advocates for ourselves, are remarkable because you always have your breath and you’re always with your breath. Unlike what you were describing where somebody could say, “I don’t have time for yoga.” Even though that might not be true, you could justify it a little. You always have time to breathe. You can’t help but breathe and you can spend a few seconds breathing.
In a previous episode, I talked about how I was trying out a new class called Face Yoga. Before they started the exercises that we were going to do with our face, it began with a breathwork meditation. It was another reminder to me how quickly my state changed from my posture to my unconscious breathing, my emotions and how relaxed I felt. Even though I’ve been experimenting with breathwork for years, I still forget and it’s fascinating. Every time I come back to my breath, it’s a reminder that that’s there for me during a challenging time.
I feel grateful that you’re reminding me, Jason and our readers. You’re also reminding many people with this book because some people will react like me. If they’re fascinated by 9/11, they’re probably going to pick up your book not expecting to learn this type of lesson. You include something that’s incredibly important for us in the current and future traumas that we will experience. You didn’t have those tools at your fingertips many years ago, but now we all have that tool and that reminder. Thanks to people like you. It’s remarkable that you’re providing the world with that gift.
I got that gift from my spiritual master, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This stayed with me and it completely shifted the state of your mind. What I learned from him was the intimate connection between the breath and the mind. Every emotion that we experience in our mind, and when I say mind, I don’t mean the brain but that field of energy where we experience the emotions and where the thoughts originate from. Any thoughts or emotions that go on in our mind, there’s a corresponding rhythm of the breath in our physical body.
If somebody is angry, they’re going to breathe shallow and short. If somebody is grieving, they’re sighing. It’s a deeper focus on exhalation or a longer exhalation. Usually, the mind leads and the breath follows behind it. Most of the time, we are unaware of that shifting breathing pattern. What I learned is this whole equation can be turned on its head and it’s still true. When you learn to modulate your breath in a certain way, your mind has no choice but to follow. That was an a-ha moment for me.You cannot control your mind through the realm of your own mind. Click To Tweet
Breath and mind are interconnected that by just learning to work with the breath, I can control how I feel and what my mind does. Otherwise, it’s difficult to control your mind. I have tried meditating before and I honestly put it in the book. I found it excruciatingly boring because I could not meditate. The minute I would close my eyes, the barrage of thoughts, the to-do lists, the argument I’ve had with my boss, the conversation with my girlfriend, all the things would pop up and it would not let me have that “experience”, whatever that may be. I don’t even know what that was.
I tried all the different modalities of meditation where you focus on the light, the sound, disassociate from the thoughts, and watch your breath. Everything felt like an effort where I thought, “There’s something I have to do.” The more I tried to do something, the further it went away from me. The further that experience became more elusive. When I learned the SKY Breath for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know this connection between the breath and the mind. I didn’t know anything. I just showed up reluctantly.
The first time it hit me, I was just breathing. It took my mind to a state where there was no effort to meditate. The mind sank into meditation. When I got out of that, I’m like, “Was I asleep? What happened?” Thirty minutes had passed by. Back then, I was not known to be sitting still for 30 minutes without fidgeting around, moving around, getting up for something. That was my first experience and I’m like, “This is transformational.” If nothing, I just sat still for 30 minutes and that itself is a miracle for me.
As I dove deeper into it and as I explored that breathwork more and more in-depth, I realized how many secrets are there in our breath. It’s with us. We don’t have to go look for it. We don’t have to subscribe to some monthly subscriptions. It’s there constantly going in and out. A little bit of awareness and using a little bit of skill to use it can unlock different dimensions. It truly is an experience and a gift that keeps on giving.
Kushal, several questions arose as you were describing this. The distinction in your mind, I’m curious about how you would define or contextualize the difference between effort and allowing, and also doing and being. These terminologies do come up in a lot of mindfulness practices. I’m curious, in your cosmology and experience, what that experience was between effort and allowing, and doing which we are obsessed with in the Western world versus to allow ourselves to be. How do you define those things? What is your experience of the difference in those things in your life?
It’s the most misunderstood concept, which includes me. I didn’t appreciate the difference between doing and being when I started on this quest. I thought it’s all about self-effort. You have to carve your own path. You have to do it and prove it. There was nothing around that. There’s a community that helps you but at the end of the day, it’s just you doing the effort. Later on, I learned that effort is just the language of the body. If you want to do something with your body, you need to put in an effort. If you want to build muscles, you have to resist and put effort.
At the level of the mind, the language is effortlessness. You cannot control your mind through the realm of your own mind. If you try it, it doesn’t go anywhere. That’s why in my personal experience, I struggled with mindfulness. I felt there was some effort required to get to a certain place which is closing your eyes and not thinking of something. If I ask you to close your eyes and not think of this show right now, the first thing that’s going to come to your mind is this image of us on the screen. The mind cannot be controlled through its own realm and boundaries. You need a tool to get to that state.
There’s a very delicate balance in here for how much effort to put in. It’s like going on the train. You have to put an effort to buy the tickets, find the right platform, get to the platform, carry your bags and get on that train. Once you get on that train, you drop the bags and just be. The train is carrying you. Walking up and down the train is not going to make you get there any faster. It’s a beautiful combination of putting some effort to get there, but once you get there, skillfully dropping that effort.
From what I learned, it comes with some experience or some commitment like, “I want to experience that delicate balance between the effort and effortlessness. How much do I do?” Oftentimes, we overdo or overcompensate on either side, but that’s the process of learning. It should not be something that should deter us from experiencing that sweet spot. It’s something that just comes. Sitting for meditation is my effort. I’ve made an effort to clear my calendar and sit down to breathe. Once I’m there, I let the breath do whatever it wants. There is no effort. There is no resisting the thoughts. We can’t help the thoughts that are coming. It’s a futile effort, but there’s no effort there. You just sit and then trust the process.Commitment is essential in everything we do. Click To Tweet
This reminds me of a curiosity that I have and I’m curious about your perspective on this. Through the years, as my passion for wellbeing and all these different facets of wellness has grown, I’m someone who’s a natural ambassador for these things. When I experience something that is great, when I read the data and study something, I want to tell everybody about it. That’s why we have this show. That’s why I’ve done so much work digitally over the years. The one thing that baffles me is how many people might be interested in something but struggle with the effort. There’s a lot of resistance.
We’ve seen a lot of different reactions in the world during the pandemic that no amount of data can necessarily convince somebody to do something that might be good for them or others. I’m curious about your perspectives on resistance, especially how that ties into trauma. Going back to your “origin story” at least for this subject matter, you described how you were in that place of denial, perhaps running away as your version of coping. It took that journey for you to get to a place of even trying something and then sticking with it.
That’s a huge challenge for someone. Even if they’re not experiencing massive trauma, maybe they feel overwhelmed, burnt out, too busy and scared. Adding one more thing to try is hard for them or sticking with it. Many people struggle to create habits with consistency. I’m curious what you’ve learned about these different forms of resistance over the course of your work, and any tools that can help someone overcome the mental resistance to even doing something that’s good for them.
To that, I would say to do what is easier. Choose the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to not take that 30 minutes out or resist in the state that one is in, then do that. If you think that Netflix can fix it or drinking it out or smoking it away can fix it, do that if you feel that’s helping. If you think that you’ve probably hit a dead end with every one of these things that you’ve tried, and perhaps it happens to be a momentary thing. It seems like it’s giving you some joy but it doesn’t deliver or doesn’t live up to its promise, then make that commitment.
Commitment is essential in anything we do. Whether it’s a relationship with a spouse or the relationship with yourself, that little bit of going out there and giving like, “I’m going to write off the twenty minutes of my day. If it doesn’t work, so what?” My experience is that once you try something and you see the results, you don’t have to wait for years or months. Let’s say you do that practice for a week and you’ll see the results. You don’t need anybody telling you to do that. You don’t need any affirmations. Your experience draws you to that space because you feel like, “After I tried this, my mind was in a different space. For 25 years, I’d never experienced a state of mind without any thoughts.”Nothing works without intention. Click To Tweet
I don’t need to see any data. I don’t need to hear from someone, “You need to do this,” in order to experience that state again. I kept going back to it because I knew that process is taking me there. It’s very natural. Put a little effort to get there and set an intention. Nothing works without any intention. Intention and a little bit of attention, and then watch it manifest. You live with that and then you see how you feel. If it’s not for you, then see what is.
I tell everyone, “You have to give it a try, even if you don’t know anything for that matter.” If you want to learn a musical instrument or go to the gym, you practice it one day and don’t practice it for ten days and you come back again, it doesn’t work. A little bit of effort and commitment takes you a long way. The practice that I experienced takes two days a week. I have seen many people who have trouble sleeping, who are dealing with their own versions of 9/11 in their life, which are sometimes even more telling than what I’ve been through.
One experience of the SKY Breath and I see their faces change. I see them getting off the meds. I’ve seen some of the veterans who come back from war. Imagine their state of consciousness. It’s so riddled with such deep scars and deep impressions. They do this practice and they get off the cocktail of meds that they have been pumping in their system. I encourage you to try breathwork. Give it a fair try. We are in a world with a short attention span. You scroll through it and if it isn’t worthy of your seven seconds of attention span, you move on. In this space, you need to carve out a little time for yourself. You owe it to yourself. We’re usually not at the top of our own list. We do everything. We take care of our friends, our work, and our loved ones, but we seldom take care of ourselves.
Kushal, when you were talking about getting into these practices and you mentioned the word void. It instantly reminded me of a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s a longer quote but the amended portion is, “If you gaze for long enough into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” This has always sat with me and my interpretation of this quote from Nietzsche has evolved over the years. To me, the void in the abyss can be used interchangeably.
First of all, this is a two-part question. What kinds of surprising, uncomfortable, or maybe even frightening things did you look at within yourself that perhaps you had never looked that deeply into within your own soul and beingness? The second half of the question is, how did this shape your relationship to the materialism of the external world? You talked about having a successful Wall Street career and being part of startups. You’re clearly surrounded by what many would consider the bastion of capitalism and materialism, Wall Street. People are associated with that. As you stared into this void, what came up for you? What arose to be looked at, loved and understood? How has this practice shaped your relationship to finances, money, materialism and the external world?
The first time I experienced that void or when that void stared at me like a menacing beast, it was uncomfortable. I wanted to run away. I want to do everything in my human potential to not face that void. That’s when I started distracting myself by traveling, doing this, going out and meeting friends. Ironically, I even learned how to fly an airplane to get rid of my fears, but it was just to get rid of my void. I was ready to go to any extent to distract myself away from the void. It’s a beautiful quote. I never heard about this quote before. What I learned from my teacher is that it doesn’t help when you run away from the void. You have to learn to shake hands with your void. You have to learn to be with that void. Unless you deal with it, it’s just a mere distraction that will keep bringing you back to that space.
Wanting to shun away from that void was something that did not work. What helped was to look into the eye and to be with it. How do you do it? Do you sit down and look into something? I didn’t know how to do it. Many people who are new to this are like, “Look into your void,” but how? The first realization for me was that it was okay to not be okay. When I looked into the void, the first thing that started coming up was the patterns that made me do certain things.
In Sanskrit, there’s a beautiful word called samskara. The English word scar has its root in this word, samskara. These are the patterns in our nervous system or in our consciousness. Any life experience that you go through leaves these impressions on our nervous system. These impressions become patterns. For example, going for a coffee every morning. You get up and you want a coffee. On the first day, you have a coffee. The next day, that was a good experience so you want another coffee. On the third day, you want more coffee because the last two days you enjoyed it. Now it has become a cow path in your consciousness. It’s become like a lesion. On the fourth day, if you don’t find a coffee, you’re miserable.
That’s a simple example of a neural pattern that we have created in our consciousness. A pattern that is pleasant wants you to have that thing more. A pattern that is painful wants you to resist that thing. Coffee, money and fame, you’ve tried it and you want it. That’s the pattern you want to keep going after. Something that’s painful, the memories of a loss, a trauma, you want to resist it. That’s an aversion. The mind, instead of being with what you have at the moment, constantly keeps flopping between these cravings and aversions. It gives it an excuse to step out of the present moment where life and joy is.We are in a world with short attention spans. You need to carve out a little time for yourself. You owe it to yourself. Click To Tweet
There are tons of literature out there talking about the power of now. It’s not something anybody has not heard of in the present context but how do you do it? How do you keep your mind in the now? Going back to that concept of effort, can you put an effort to keep the mind in the now? In my personal experience, where this effort did not help was walking on this path. Doing these practices, breathwork and meditation helped me maintain my bearings. It helped me go towards what is. It gave me the strength to be who I am and to be comfortable with my patterns.
What the SKY Breath does is cleanses these impressions. It doesn’t happen overnight. While it does that, those patterns still keep coming up. They keep showing up in your life. One thing I realized over a period of time as I was doing it is that if I can just learn to be in the moment, it didn’t matter what I pursue. I initially thought that going after my ambitions was anti-meditation, anti-spirituality, or meditation is anti-progress. You have to be a monk who sells his Ferrari, give up everything, go to a cave in the Himalayas and meditate. What I learned was exactly the opposite. It does not have to be so.
The whole point of this whole practice is that it allows you to enjoy this moment as it is. You can be completely immersed in the pursuits and not resisting the pleasures that you get from the objects of the senses. Enjoy them because that’s why we have these senses. I want to hear the best music. I want to taste the best food. I want to have the best that life can offer to me while being centered within and while not feeling that if I don’t get that, I’m suddenly miserable.
That’s what this breathwork gave me. It’s that strength to be okay if I didn’t have that. At the same time, it gave me the courage and stability to go after it with all I had. Being still inside but being dynamic outside. Not resisting ambition, not resisting progress and not resisting pleasures. At the same time, not being crestfallen if I didn’t get any of that or heartbroken if, someday, I fell flat and I realized that I made a mistake. Does that answer your question?
Yes. I also wanted to say that the visual imagery of a monk driving a Ferrari was a fantastic mental image. It was amazing. I’m imagining this monk being unattached like, “I have this Ferrari but it doesn’t define who I am.”It doesn't help when you run away from the void. You have to learn how to shake hands with it and be with it. Click To Tweet
It also leads me to a question because I want to hear more about the journey with your company, Elements Truffles. One thing I love about your brand is the experience stuck with me. I felt present in the moment when I first tried it and saw the packaging. It was created with so much intention. It must be fascinating for you to run a chocolate business because people have a lot of different associations with chocolate. It hasn’t been until in the past few years that people even realized that you can enjoy chocolate without guilt. Much of the chocolate was cheap and full of sugar. When people would think of it, they’re like, “This is my guilty pleasure. I can only have a little of this.”
Also, something that you touched upon briefly was the coffee example and how you can find a lot of joy and pleasure in something the first time you have it. If you continue to have it, it becomes a habit and it might be less pleasurable and you’re not as aware of it. One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is to take a small piece of chocolate and let it melt slowly in my mouth without chewing it or swallowing it too fast, and noticing the full flavor of it and how my body is reacting. It’s such a phenomenal thing.
For the readers, if you haven’t done that yet, a tiny piece of high-quality chocolate is a meditation in itself if you let it melt in your mouth and that’s all you focus on with your eyes closed and everything. When I think of Elements Truffles, that’s a brand that I would probably buy to do that exercise because it energetically feels like it was designed for that. I’m curious, why did you end up creating a truffle company? You’re passionate and knowledgeable about other mindfulness practices. What came first, your work in passion for breathwork or Elements? How does Elements complement that? Is it completely separate? I can’t imagine it’s the answer but I don’t want to assume.
Thank you for the kind words about the chocolates. It started as a passion project for my wife and me. We both are not professionally trained chocolatiers. We have no professional background in culinary. We sometimes make fun of ourselves. Between us, we have seven professional degrees and none of which is related anywhere remotely to making chocolates. At some point, we realized that we wanted to do something that we both were truly passionate about and do it together.
She was a trader on Wall Street herself. After my Wall Street career, I was pursuing other startup interests. We were living like roommates and seeing each other on weekends. We said, “Let’s do something together. Let’s do something that we both are passionate about and something that truly represents or truly helps us create an impact even if it’s one chocolate bar at a time, even if it’s one tiny morsel at a time.” If you want to do something, an effort or an adventure, it has a lot of heart in it.
Everything that we had done before was purely capitalistic if I may say. The focus was on becoming successful in the eyes of what the world considers success, which is mostly the bottom line. We said, “What is it that makes us happy if we were to do something together? If you and I were to do something together, what is it that makes us happy?” Three things kept coming up, meditation, Ayurveda and chocolates or cacao. We used to call ourselves chocolate snobs where we would travel the world looking for the highest quality of chocolates. We pride ourselves in finding some of the most treasured Criollo beans and chocolates made out of that rare beans. I’m like, “Let’s deflect our passion into something we can keep ourselves busy with every day.”
Ayurveda as you may or may not know is the science of nutrition. It’s the science of well-being that goes back 5,000 years. It’s considered the sister science to yoga. How yoga focuses on body and mind, Ayurveda focuses on nutrition and what you put inside your body to sustain you. This comes down full circle. Growing up, Ayurveda was a big part of our life. Our recipes from my grandma, our food, our lifestyle were attuned to Ayurveda at some point but I had no appreciation for it. It was something I had taken for granted.
When we came back and as started meditating and doing more breathwork, we automatically saw our eating patterns and our nutrition change. We realized that we were going back to the roots. Ayurveda talks about mental and physical well-being as one unit. It talks about Swastha, which means overall health. In Sanskrit, the word Swastha means being established in yourself. It’s encapsulating everything that we were doing was aligned with what we wanted to do. We thought, “Why not bring Ayurveda to the world wrapped in a bar of chocolate? Nobody ever says no to chocolate. Why not bring these both together?” In a way, it creates a wholesome snack and a wholesome dessert.
I even was feeling uncomfortable using the word guilt-free. Food should not have guilt associated with it. Associating the word guilt with the food was a big no-no for me in the first place. I said, “Let’s create something where people don’t have to turn around and look at the nutritional label.” If it’s from Elements, it has to be clean and holistic. It has to be created with all these beautiful practices that have been kept alive for thousands of years.
For example, turmeric, ashwagandha or all these herbs of Ayurveda are not pleasant. If you try to eat them by themselves, they are yucky. Integrating it into our modern diet is unthinkable in a meaningful and sustainable way. The credit goes to my wife for coming up with these beautifully crafted recipes where you don’t even taste these. The flavor profile of the cacao masks the unpleasantness of these good adaptogens, superfoods, spices and herbs. It’s a win-win. That’s where it came from.The whole point of mindfulness is that it allows you to enjoy the moment as it is. Click To Tweet
We wanted to have that heart in this entire end-to-end product. We started sourcing cacao. A lot of the cacao that comes in some of these chocolates doesn’t come from the right spaces. There’s a lot of child labor. There’s a lot of unethical practices. We had gone to Ecuador before looking for the right cacao. We had heard a lot about it. We found that there were these small and mid-sized farmers who were giving away their crop to some middlemen who would pay them a price of a song and promise to take their entire crop. These farmers did not even have the means to transport their cacao. They didn’t have the vehicles to take it to the markets.
We partnered with a mindful person who aligned the same with our philosophy and agreed to send trucks to these farmers to get their produce and send them to us. When we start doing these things, it was unthinkable how we will be able to do it. Once you have that intention, consciousness supports you. Right from paying fair wages to these farmers, getting it from them, and building a relationship with them. Now it’s like, “I’m going to use your cacao. Next time, I’m going to go to someone else who is going to give it to me at a cheaper price.”
Building that community with these farmers, ethical sourcing, getting the right ingredients, and creating the right product with that approach of not taking any shortcuts. Whatever we sell, we also give back 25% of those profits towards the underprivileged children and their education in the tribal areas of India through this initiative called Care For Children. We wanted to do something where end-to-end there was a lot of integrity.
Every now and then, we have to keep reminding ourselves because there’s always another opportunity where you say, “You knock your prices a little bit and we give you a huge opportunity to get placed in this big store nationwide.” It’s like, “No, let’s not turn this into another Wall Street venture. Let us grow it on our own terms.” Elements Truffles has come together with doing a lot of things that we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t see an opportunity in our day-to-day jobs. There were little elements of what we wanted to do but not everything end-to-end. We said, “We’ll create something on our own and integrate everything in it and create this product.” That’s how Elements Truffles was born.The more time we take out to connect with ourselves, the more it allows us to disengage and take a dip into who we are. Click To Tweet
I have two questions, Kushal. First of all, when you talk about Ayurveda, Whitney and I both have a basic understanding of the doshas. I am primarily Vata with some Pitta. It’s airy with some fire. I have friends that are dominant Kapha. When you’re talking about formulating these truffles and you’re integrating these Ayurvedic herbs, these ancient herbs from this 5,000-year-old culinary tradition. If I’m a Vata-Pitta and I’m like, “I need to get these Elements Truffles.” You’re like, “That one’s for Kapha.” Have you structured these in a way that is specific for the doshas? Could I enjoy all of them regardless of my dosha?
There is an element of using specific herbs that balance a particular dosha. I would shy away from saying that these chocolates are not medicinal. These chocolates represent Ayurveda in its true sense, which means no do’s or don’ts. That’s what Ayurveda says, “No rigid rules.” That’s something that kept me going back to Ayurveda. Look at diets today, keto or high-fat diets, low-carb diets. All these diets have strict dos and don’ts. You do this and you don’t do this. You have to adhere to certain principles. Ayurveda is the exact opposite. Ayurveda says, “You indulge responsibly. Do everything but in the right proportion at the right time, at the right time of the day, at the right time of the year, and you enjoy life.”
What we recommend to our chocolates is there are certain elements and herbs in here, which are suited towards your own blueprint, which is your own constitution. Most of them are generic. We don’t want to create another set of do’s and don’ts for people to say, “Can I eat this chocolate bar or can I not eat this?” Eat whatever. At the end of the day, chocolate is aggravating. Chocolate has that fire thing. To say that these chocolates are Ayurvedic would not be sincere. What we say is these chocolates are Ayurveda-inspired.
Even if it makes you curious, “What is my type? What herbs or spices or eating habits should I cultivate by eating these chocolates?” The purpose has been served. We have certain chocolates that are tailored to certain doshas. For example, one of our bestsellers is Rose and Cardamom. It’s calming. Frankly, it’s not my favorite one. It’s an amazing flavor and people swear by it. For some reason, I’m not a floral chocolate type person. I love the more purist like Black Lava Salt with turmeric.
What’s interesting is different people get drawn to different flavors based on their Ayurveda constitution. If you are Pitta, you get drawn to certain smells and tastes at that moment based on the different times of the day. At certain times of the day, when a certain element is more predominant, you will gravitate towards a certain type of food or a certain type of aroma. Towards the latter part of the evening let’s say, you will go for something more calming and more soothing. In the morning, you might want something that’s fire aggravating to get you through the day.
Long story short, we have about fifteen flavors. You can take any one of them which appeals to you, whichever flavor that talks to you and enjoy it in small amounts. Even the purest medicinal chocolate, when consumed in excess can be not good. I don’t want to use the word guilt. Explore it and enjoy it a little bit. In the earlier years for that validation, we would go to trade shows. That’s where I met you. People are like, “How much do you recommend?” I said, “Don’t eat much. You eat a tiny bit. This tiny bit should pacify you or satisfy that sweet craving.” He’s like, “You’re the first one who says don’t eat my chocolate.” I’m like, “No. Eat it but indulge in the right amount. That way, you can eat anything throughout the year without feeling bad about it.”
I love that lesson because it ties into this conversation around tuning into our habits and our purpose and examining why are we drawn to certain things. Are we in alignment with what we’re doing? On that note, I have one final question. Jason may have another. Given that this episode comes out the day before September 11, 2021, and given that this episode is also coming out during a lot of challenging times in the world overlapping each other. It seems like we’ve got climate change, the pandemic, and crisis in different parts of the world. There’s a lot of pain and sadness. Chocolate is a nice coping mechanism and breathwork is as you’ve clarified. Is there anything else that you would say to someone reading this during all of these tough times and the anniversary of a hard day for many people in this world? If you could tune into your heart right now, what is a message that you would like to share with people who needs need some support from your perspective?
There will always be something going on. There is no way this world is going to let us be. There will always be some conflict going on in some part of the world or some part of the mind that’s ready to throw us off our balance. That’s the whole world. It runs on the opposites. Because they’re opposites, this world is able to function in the way it can. Because there is a night, there is a day. Because there’s pain, that’s why you have appreciated joy in some moments.
One thing that I learned is that pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. There’s always going to be things around us. The more time we take out to connect to ourselves and be that witness to what’s going around, the more it allows us to disengage and take a dip into who we are. That gives us the ability to disconnect. I can’t tell you how precious that skill or that opportunity is to disconnect. Even if it is for 5 or 10 minutes, take that time to disconnect. Take the time to connect with yourself.
That’s such a wonderful way to wrap this episode, Kushal. You’re such a wealth of heartfelt wisdom. We are grateful for your openness in sharing your experiences, your story, and also giving people and the readers specific takeaways if they are looking for new practices, new ways of addressing their trauma, trying to find more joy in their life and more pleasure. I love everything you shared. We could go on for hours with you. It feels like there’s a connection and your spirit is so buoyant.Take the time to disconnect and connect with yourself. Click To Tweet
For me, being in your energy, even though you’re in New York City and we’re here in LA, I feel more uplifted after speaking to you. Knowing what you have experienced in your life and decades later, coming from a place of service, creativity, joyfulness and generosity. It shows me and I’m sure it shows a lot of people reading this the possibility that you can experience horrific traumatic things and come out on the other side of it with your heart whole, your heart open, and still giving a lot of love to this world. Thank you for being a living example of that.
Thank you. It’s been an honor to be with you guys.
For anyone who wants to dive into more of Kushal’s wonderful creative offerings in this world, we mentioned Elements Truffles. I’m going to order a batch because all it took was this interview for me to be like, “I’m in.” You will see an order coming through from Jason Wrobel in your order queue.
They’re sold locally. Are they still available? Would you know off the top of your head, Kushal? I’ve seen them in Lassens market, which is one of our favorite markets in Los Angeles.
They are, Lassens or Erewhon.
Jason, it’s a trip down the street. You could have some in an hour.
Not coincidentally, I’m going to Lassens for a video shoot to pick up ingredients. I will go to the chocolate aisle in Lassens and score myself if they are in stock of some of your wonderful truffles.
If you don’t find them, I’ll send you both some of my favorites.
Kushal, thank you from the bottom of our hearts, the top of our hearts, the side of our hearts, all the angles of our hearts. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you here on the show.
Thank you, Jason! Thank you, Whitney!
*We use affiliate links in our show notes. This means we receive a small sales commission if you purchase an item based on our recommendation.
- Kushal Choksi
- Elements Truffles
- On a Wing and a Prayer: Spirituality for the Reluctant, the Curious and the Seeker
- The Unthinkable
- Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
- Care For Children
- Lassen’s Natural Foods & Vitamins
- Erewhon Market
- Kushal Choksi – Instagram
- Kushal Choksi – Twitter
- Kushal Choksi – LinkedIn
About Kushal Choksi
Kushal Choksi started his career as a quantitative analyst with Goldman Sachs. He left his position as Vice President of Asset Management there to join Athilon, an investment fund. As a Managing Director of Athilon, he helped ramp up a $45 billion portfolio before the fund was acquired by EBF Associates. He then moved to India to join BlackRock’s Fixed Income business as a Senior Vice President, where he managed billions of dollars in the company’s flagship mutual funds. After returning to New York, he submitted to his passion for entrepreneurship and started his own tech startup. His content distribution venture, Hubbl, was acquired by Airpush within two years. He then started a proprietary trading venture, Clavileno Capital which later merged with ARB Trading Group.
He and his wife now run Elements Truffles, a New York-based artisanal chocolate company built on values of Ayurveda, sustainability, giving back and ethical trade. Kushal is a trainer of personal development, meditation, wellness, and leadership programs for the Art of Living Foundation. He has taught secrets of breathwork and meditation to thousands across the US, Europe, and Asia. He serves on the US board of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV).
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