Learning by heart. Teach don't preach, says the woman with the key to happiness.It was a Road to Damascus moment in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Billur Gungoren, a woman at a mid-life crossroads, had used a disguise to avoid being sent to the back of the great temple, where Muslim women are meant to stay and know their place.
She stood in the shadows and watched the men at prayer. She noted carefully their postures, their movements – and then it hit her. “The men were unconsciously using a technique I had seen in the Far East to open the channels that link the energy centres of the body. Their prayer was a sort of therapy. I knew then what I would be doing for the rest of my life.”
Billur took the road to happiness, and now she wants us to follow her. Using a mixture of techniques taken from mainly Eastern sources, she has created a course that aims to teach women how to harmonise their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies and see the world anew.
The incredulous may ask of the founder of the Cannes School of Happiness, “Can happiness be taught?”
Billur’s answer: “Yes, each day of our lives each of us makes a choice. We can choose to follow our mind with its constant demands, judgements and criticisms. Or we can quiet our ruminating mind and learn how to listen to our heart. Our slogan is ‘Live from the Heart’, because life truly reveals itself only through the heart. In the School of Happiness foundation course I share many techniques that help women to experience acceptance, peace, love and forgiveness.”
The seven sessions that make up a School of Happiness (www.schoolofhappiness-cannes.com) course follow a pattern. First, members of the small group are taught to use yoga postures to remove energy blockages in the body. Next come breathing exercises to balance the emotions. Following that, relaxation techniques are employed to link physical, emotional and mental states. The session ends with Billur’s famous Happiness Tea and a talk. Referring to the group as a “sharing circle”, Billur guides the participants through such topics as the use of “freedom techniques” to improve daily life, changing relationships to get the love you need, and learning to forgive yourself and your loved ones in order to live in the now.
One suspects that it would be easy for the charismatic, perceptive and deeply intelligent Billur to become a “guru” to the women she teaches. This is furthest from her mind.
“I have designed the programme to lead to empowerment, not dependence,” says the Turkish-born 47-year-old. “At the end of the course, the graduates have access to all the materials necessary to enable them to sustain a daily ‘life of the listening heart’.
"They don’t need to come back to me for help and guidance, it will all flow from within.”
The testimonials of past students of the €500 course are impressive. Individuals in Billur’s most recent group varied in age from 40 to 65, and came to the School of Happiness with a range of problems – sleeplessness, feelings of terrible isolation, and difficulties with a partner or child – and all found at the end of the course that they had the tools to understand and deal with these issues.
Although Billur’s aim is to be self-effacing when it comes to her students – her policy of building self-reliance is effective – there is no denying that she is a fascinating woman who has never shirked life’s challenges. Born in Istanbul, she rebelled against the subservient role that seems to be expected of her as a woman. She went to university in Turkey; then, against the wishes of her parents, she set off to grow her life in the wider world. After a doctorate at Columbia she joined the UN and began a career that would see her putting power into the hands of women in Central Asia through her management of water policy. She helped save lives, she improved the health of children, she made a big, big difference. Billur had it all, a fulfilling job, a loving partner, a daughter, a full life – then the shock and the numbing emptiness that comes with a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Out went the computer. She threw away her watch (she hasn’t replaced it). She searched the world and eventually found answers and strength within herself: along with that came the vision of helping others through the School of Happiness.
In Mougins, where Billur’s second Happiness School is opening, the Reporter photographer poses his subject next to a village fountain because it just seems right somehow. Only later does he discover from Billur that her name means “the pure water from the high mountains”. Fitting for a special kind of woman whose watch phrase could be “Go with the Flow”.
The School of Happiness Open House takes place in Mougins on 14 December 2013