Live simply, be at peace.
When Kunal Nayyar speaks about coming home, he isn’t just talking about hopping a flight to his homeland of India to enjoy a meal with his family and a rousing game of cricket in the driveway.
The actor, best known for playing Raj on the wildly popular TV show, The Big Bang Theory, sat down with Jay Shetty on a recent episode of On Purpose with Jay Shetty to talk about how to him, coming home means finding his true self. The trek, he described, has been a painful, but necessary journey.
When the two friends sat down, the conversation went quickly from fun to deep. After catching up on their shared love of Lakers basketball, they dove right into talking about the bedrocks of Nayyar’s life: identity, simplicity, and spirituality.
Growing Deep and Humble Roots
Kunal Nayyar’s rise to fame wasn’t handed to him on a golden platter. The lessons he learned from his family in India have kept him rooted and humble. Nayyar’s story is one of authenticity, hard work, and a solid appreciation for his down-to-earth upbringing.
His childhood experience is part of what makes Nayyar so relatable, both on the screen and in real life. His understanding of family and community makes him approachable.
“The idea of family is beyond just four people or five people,” he said, referring to his Indian heritage. “You don't grow up just with your parents. You grow up with your cousins, you grow up with their cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and friends parents. The community around you is so large.” Real life is lived in community, and the community is there in celebration and in sorrow.
“There’s simplicity in the way the culture works,” he told Jay Shetty. “You just show up in times of need.” When he moved to America, adjusting to a more individualistic culture was a challenge.
“We're really sterilizing all experiences in life,” he said about life in the United States. “You shake someone's hand and you've got to use antibacterial soap. If someone coughs, you look at them like they're sick.This kind of a thing is really taking away the humanity from us … When I look back, I think about the profound impact it [India] had on me. It was messy and it was full. It wasn't sterile and empty.”
Kunal admitted finding connection in the U.S. was harder than he expected. Having to schedule time with friends instead of doing life together on a daily basis felt lonely.
As he said to Jay Shetty, “I miss that sort of everyone-on top-of-each-other-all-the-time kind of love because it's very familiar to me.”.
Big Bang Becomes His Big Break
When push came to shove, Kunal Nayyar, the business major with big screen dreams, feared he’d have to return to India if he couldn't catch his big break. His job as a residential cleaner on a college campus in Oregon paid the bills, but didn’t fulfill his passion.
He auditioned for several parts before being spotted and offered a role. Even when he landed the job, however, his acting career wasn’t out of the woods. He pieced together a living working at a raw foods restaurant while sleeping on a friend's couch. All the while, the boy from India juggled the clash between two cultures.
Kunal’s big break came in the form of a big bang. Being discovered for Big Bang Theory blew open the doors on his career. Finally, he told Jay Shetty, he was able to buy his first car and breathe a little easier.
Clash of Realities
Fame and the euphoria of acting can do funny things to people. Nayyar admitted to Jay Shetty that he was not immune to its effects.
“There is something about being an actor,” Nayyar said, “You're trying to find the truth in the moment. That's why people get addicted to acting, in my opinion, because it really forces you to dive within and find the truth in a moment … so whenever you're acting, you're always trying to find that truth; find that moment where you can experience this again.”
“That's the hard thing about being an actor though too,” he continued. “You have this incredible, intense experience, and then you have to go back to your life. You finish acting on set, and then you show back up at home.” Nayyar struggled with the adjustment between his two worlds.
“How do you balance the two?” Jay Shetty asked. “How did you first face that, and what was it like when you first experienced that walk back home?”
“I think it's hard to experience something so profound every evening or every moment, and then come back and try to re-install yourself into the reality of everyday existence,” Nayyar answered Jay Shetty. “I think that's why so many artists take to drugs or alcohol or other forms of staying high, because you experienced this incredible high and then you have to come home. I mean, how do I explain what my day was? It was an infinite experience into the cosmos of reality. I mean, how do I talk about that?”
The struggle for balance left Nayyar searching and feeling anxious. Without realizing, he fell into a comfortable routine of stopping to get a few drinks on the way home in an effort to take the edge off. As time wore on, however, the edge got harder and harder to shake.
“It got out of hand before I knew it was out of hand,” he explained to Jay Shetty. “ I began to feel anxiety, which I had never experienced in my life, as a child or as a youngster. I didn't know what it was. But I was feeling slightly uncomfortable and so when I did, I would drink. ‘I'm kind of feeling weird, let me just have a drink, and have a great time.’”
Nayyar had entered a downward spiral.
“I was not in a good place, and I was doing things and putting myself in situations which I shouldn't have been doing, all to run away from myself,” Nayyar said to Jay Shetty. “I was given a pill to take in case I had another panic attack. I remember I was standing on the 17th floor of a building, and I put a pill in my mouth. I heard a voice say, ‘Before you run away from yourself, I want you to experience yourself.’”
Nayyar threw the pill away and faced his anxiety head on.
What led up to Nayyar’s watershed moment reminded Jay Shetty of being stuck in the corner of a boxing ring.
“You can't just dance and prance about and run away from it,” Jay Shetty said. “You have to figure out what your strategy is. How did you figure out where to start?
“You are the one in the way of the path of freedom,” said Nayyar. “Finding peace means coming to peace with yourself.” This, he explained, is the real meaning of coming home.
Kunal Nayyar Comes Home
Kunal Nayyar found deep spirituality and meaning in welcoming himself home. He explained to Jay Shetty that his deepest peace and enlightenment arrived when he began to focus on the beauty within. He learned to lean into meditation and deep reflection and let go of trying too hard.
Nayyar realized he’d been standing in his own way. He cast fear and doubt aside and discovered fulfillment in the simple and peaceful life that was his. Simplicity plays a huge part in his focus on self and on finding a life of enlightenment and peace. But what does simplicity look like in the life of a successful actor?
“How are you monitoring that balance in your own life of being ambitious, being open to new opportunities, but still remaining simple, happy, grounded, present? How are you juggling that?” Jay Shetty asked Nayyar.
According to Nayyar, simple intentions are the key. He explains that people often get hung up on following the rules of enlightenment or spirituality and miss the point entirely. They lose themselves and don’t fully tap into the power of their spirituality.
“You don't have to go to a cave and sit for 10 years to meditate,” he told Jay Shetty. Instead, Nayyar encourages people to look outside the standard view of peace and enlightenment.
“You can sleep in a comfortable bed and just be as peaceful. You can drive a really nice car and enjoy the fruits of your labor. And what's wrong with that? Do you have to say, ‘Well, there's a starving child in Sudan or India or, or even in America or anywhere, so I shouldn't enjoy the fruits of my life?’”
“Why not do it all?” Kunal challenged Jay Shetty’s listeners. “Why not give back and enjoy it? That is the simplicity – to accept the totality of what you are.”
Nayyar has found freedom and confidence to be himself. In many ways, this authenticity feels like coming full circle to the beautifully messy and authentic life that he experienced as a child.
Whether in India or America, Kunal Nayyar has learned the roots of peace and simplicity lie within him. He is grateful for all he has discovered on the journey.