Asad Chishti: Cycling across Canada to Research What Leads to a Good Life

|| Jenny Kim

Asad is a photographer, 2x cross-Canada cyclist, and an inventor at Chairs and Tables (‘CHAT’ like cat in French), a ten-year research project that investigates what leads to a full and good life. Through CHAT, he has researched and written reports on topics such as happiness, home, health, harvest, and more (the Chairs and Tables website is currently being revamped).

Asad’s sense of curiosity was contagious as we explored thought-provoking topics ranging from our human faults of placing happiness on a pedestal to the infinite number of ways we can get from birth to death. He draws inspiration from everywhere to guide his life and thoughts - Mother Teresa, physics problems, and even a saying on the wall of a Chinese restaurant. What was most striking about Asad, however, was his vibrant language and openness- he shared with me the pain he felt from his friend’s death at Queen’s to the frustrations (as well as joy) of being marginalized during his cycling trip. In this conversation, you’ll learn about how he started Chairs and Tables, key learnings from researching happiness, the infinite ways you can live life, his experience with his As the Raven Flies project which also entailed a cross-country cycling trip, and his future plans to start a publishing house.

What’s the story behind Chairs and Tables?

I went to Queen’s University for my undergrad and I felt like I did a lot in those years- I worked on the TEDxQueens conference and I also used to organize these bi-weekly speaker series which was the opposite of TEDx in a lot of ways. My friend, Ted who I worked on TEDxQueens and some other stuff around campus with, once wrote to me in a postcard from a conference he was attending. He told me “the best way to get a chair at the table is to build the table yourself” as well as the fact that lot of people are really afraid of building tables, because they’re worried that it will be wobbly or the color will be off. Ted wrote that [I’m] unashamed about building these things and bringing people together. Aside from actually inviting people to join [me], it inspires other people to build their own tables or believe it’s not so difficult to start something and I thought that was really great. At the same time, I’d read this wonderful book called “The Chairs Are Where the People Go” by Toronto-based writers, Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. One of my favourite musicians, Andrew Bird, had a song called “Tables and Chairs”. So I thought to myself that this notion of chairs and tables kept resurfacing and I took it as a sign.

How do you decide the annual themes to explore through Chairs and Tables?

Every year it’s, weirdly enough, been something that’s missing in my life or I felt was missing from the zeitgeist, but I think it’s usually been from personal gaps.

The first theme was happiness. During my time at Queen’s, even though I met so many wonderful people and had so many incredible opportunities, I wasn’t very happy. I felt that nobody was talking about happiness. My first year was especially a rough year. We had a lot of student deaths on campus, some of them were death by suicides. One of my friends, Habib Khan, who was student council president at my high school in Saudi Arabia, was also at Queen’s. He was up on a roof on West Campus and fell through the roof and died shortly after. I had an engineering course load and all my extra-curriculars, and I just didn’t take the time to slow down and go see a counsellor. Around that same time, happiness became this incredible buzzword and I think at one point there were something around 500 books published with the word happy or happiness in it. I also remembered this quote by Mother Teresa that went along the lines of “if there’s ever a protest, I’m out, but if there is a rally for peace, I’m in”. I appreciated that positive reframing around a problem- I realized I could be unhappy and just sit there and dig deeper into why I’m feeling sad, or I could try to fill that gap by trying to research the opposite of what was bothering me.

I spent 16 months researching happiness by doing a cross-Canada biking trip and waking up in a different place every month like Winnipeg, New York, Nepal, India and more. I’d collected all these beautiful stories from all these places, but nowhere felt like home for me or for these beautiful stories. I felt this sense of homelessness (which I now consider more like homefulness) and so the following year, the theme was home. At the end of that theme, I had a bike accident and I felt like I wasn’t doing very well, I’d been working too hard and I felt like health was something that I was missing which led me to research health the following year. Another theme we researched was history, which is when we worked on the Canada 150 “As the Raven Flies” project. Now we’re transitioning into our new theme which is harvest because there was a sense of “I’ve done a lot of work, but I’m not always sure if there’s much to show for it.” We’re revamping the Chairs and Tables website so we can better showcase all the work we’ve done in the last five years. I’m also tinkering away on some journalism projects in the countryside.

What were your key findings from researching happiness?

I think a lot of people, especially in today’s day and age, put happiness on a pedestal and if you’re not happy, something’s wrong with you. But happiness is just another emotion, right? It’s just another feeling and it needs to be level with all the other emotions and feelings like loss, grief and sadness. I think one of the big findings was that, you don’t want to be happy all the time. One of the best conversations I had was with another cross-country cyclist, John Niederreiter, during one of my cycling trips. He was headed in the opposite direction and we met just outside of Thunder Bay. We had this beautiful conversation where he told me, “Happiness is a vain pursuit and once we pursue it, we become vain in our way of thinking and it’s impossible to become happy. It’s like in Harry Potter [and the] philosopher’s stone. The only one who can have it is the one who doesn’t want to use it… You [shouldn’t] search for happiness but you can search for truth, what is good and what is right and eventually you’ll find happiness.”

There was another cyclist I met who cycled from Yukon to Newfoundland, and he said, “Happiness is the presence of gratitude and the absence of expectations.” To me, that just about sums the whole thing up. I think there was also this sense of happiness being the surface of the ocean and what you want is something deeper- it’s a joy or contentment. It’s something that is way deeper than just that surface so even if things are rocky at the top, things at the bottom are so calm and settled that it doesn’t faze you all that much.

Image from Asad’s Instagram (@asad_ch) taken during his As the Raven Flies cycling trip

From Asad’s Instagram (@asad_ch), taken during his As the Raven Flies cycling trip

In your TED talk, you mentioned that there are an infinite number of ways to get from birth to death. What was your inspiration behind that notion and for constantly reinventing your life?

There’s this incredible Chinese restaurant close to Trinity-Bellwoods. I remember the first time I was there, they had this saying on their wall that went something along the lines of “in the finite moments it takes for you to read this line, you will have lived forever.” I had also come across this weird physics + mathematics problem: if you had a distance between point A and point B and if you kept covering only half the distance, would you ever get there? You wouldn’t because there’s some sort of a limit and you don’t reach the limit, you just keep getting closer and closer. It was a combination of those two things that made me realize there are an infinite number of ways to live and there’s no correct way to live your life. There are good rules and mantras to follow like call your family often, respect your elders, have good relationships with your community and be honest and be sincere, etc. but really, the day to day of it, there’s no perfect recipe. Especially if you were fortunate enough to go to a school with great teachers and found your community and had some good friends and were healthy, you don’t have to worry about those things and you’re even more unlimited. It still sometimes baffles me that I can drink water out of a tap, and in some ways you have a lot more choice than most people who’ve ever lived (period). So I think it’s a gift but also a curse at times because then you’re thinking, “What do I do if I can do anything?” The reality is, you can do anything but you can’t do everything. You have to choose to do something and realize you don’t have to be married to it but it’s good to commit for a little while.

You cycled across Canada for the second time in 2017 for your project, As the Raven Flies. Could you tell me more about your experience? What was the most challenging part of your entire journey?

The aim of the project was to highlight and focus on the underappreciated and more marginalized histories of Canada. There are all these things that the average Canadian is unaware of or refuses to acknowledge- a good example that I learned in high school was about our poor treatment of the Japanese-Canadians and how long it took before the government apologized. I think the mainstream media coverage for our project was a lot better than I expected. Thanks to movements like Idle No More, Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the conversation was a lot more critical and inclusive and shifted the needle. I finished the trip at the end of September and then I produced a rough cut of a documentary and had a film screening in Kingston in early October. Since then, I’ve just been processing the trip – it’s hard to explain what happened because I have so many moments of clarity and magic and serendipity. All them seem so monumental and impactful, it feels almost rude or belittling to narrow them down to some main findings.

Given that the whole project was supposed to be about marginalized narratives, it was really fascinating to me that I ended up cycling with someone who, for whatever reason I forgot, embodied all these privileges. My partner was a White Christian male who went to Queen’s, which is one of the most privileged institutions in the country. I repeatedly found myself, my own story, and my perspectives being marginalized, which was amazing to me but at the same time, very difficult. The fact that it was also someone that I was very close with whom I considered a close friend, whose family I considered myself being very close with- that was the most challenging part. Pretty early in the bike trip I realized, no this is really good because I’m living the experience and able to take notes as an ethnographer-quasi-anthropologist-slash-journalist. This is a good data set of how your narrative get marginalized.

Image from Asad’s Instagram (@asad_ch) taken during his As the Raven Flies cycling trip

From Asad’s Instagram (@asad_ch), taken during his As the Raven Flies cycling trip

What’s next for you and Chairs and Tables?

For the last little while, I’ve been increasingly dedicated to books and publishing- I’d like to start my own publishing house in the next year or two. I essentially want to have a good take on “what does a 21st century book look like?” I think it would have an audio book component, some sort of a short film attached to it and the authors would have good websites. I’m going to test it out a component of it in the Fall by hosting film screenings around one of the first authors I’d like to publish in a year-ish.

Since finishing high school and taking up photography, a lot of the big questions I’ve had are memory and time and wisdom and knowledge. In a lot of ways, the best backup, distillation and synthesis of what you have learned in life is a book- just good ol’ paper and ink. If you have 500 copies, and all of them are in different places, that’s a robust backup system of your knowledge and information. And then you can add in all these other elements like a film about it, maybe a short audio series and a website, so that’s what I would like to work on. I’m not sure how any of this is going to be financially feasible or sustainable. And I also have a journalism project in mind around rural areas.

Books & Resources:

He’s an incredible Portuguese poet who lost his dad and brother when he was young, and he invented all these pseudonyms which portrayed various personas. He would write to these pseudonyms, and then with these pseudonyms/he would write back to himself.

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