“The Universe challenges you to see how much happiness you can take”, my friend Gail told me this week.
Which was another way of looking at an idea that I have been contemplating in my yoga practice recently: “At the very heart of our practice” writes Rolf Gates, “we need one thing: a mature willingness to no longer be in pain”. In typical yoga fashion, this is a statement that sounds obscure and contradictory. Because who wants to be in pain?
Maybe its not that we desire pain, but pain may be such a familiar part of our lives that it’s hard to loosen our grasp on it, and let it go. I know how difficult it’s been for me to let go of the sad stories I created in which I had cast myself as the victim in some aspects of my life. The person-taken-advantage-of in an unhappy marriage or wrongly devalued by an arrogant client. Unfairly put through the wringer by the IRS. A view which is distressing to sit with and contemplate, but which somehow I kept circling back around to.
What these painful stories gave me was the opportunity to avoid being responsible: I was abdicating responsibility for my own decisions and actions in relationships and I was also abdicating my responsibility to be present, today, now. Instead I allowed my mind to linger on the painful stories of the past or race off towards the anxiety of the unknown future — and then let the emotions provoked by this rumination determine my thoughts and actions in the present.
What happens when we give up this attachment to our own pain? We have to accept responsibility for choices we have made, even in this ever-changing sea of life in which so much is tumultuous and unknown.
We have to accept that no one else may understand our choices — not family, friends, lovers, or co-workers — a fact that can feel scary and isolating. And further, fully accepting responsibility for our choices may challenge who we think we are (such as a really really nice person, a loving and supportive wife, a fiscally responsible member of the community, a successful business person, someone who always has their shit together, etc).
Sometimes we ourselves don’t understand, rationally, a choice we are making, but when listening to our heart we know it is the best choice for us, for who we are now. And as hard as it is for me to fully embrace this idea: That is enough. It really is.
Which leads me back to Gail’s comment about happiness. For once I had begun to question my attachment to my own painful sad stories, and accept that I had made choices that were right for me (even if the results were messy), happiness came rushing in, in all its wonderful, fearsome glory. I fell in love with a man I have actually known for years, and I can’t help wondering: was happiness right there in front of my nose and I just couldn’t see it? I have moved back to a place with mountains, pine trees and birds, which is also pure happiness for me. The different types of work I do seem to be shifting and falling into place, forming a wonderful and most satisfying arrangement. My big, outdoor-loving dog is finally content.
Why would anyone turn away from the possibility of happiness and settle for less? Fear. If we fully embrace happiness, if we are fully present for those we love, we may still fail — or things may not work out as we had hoped — and what if we can’t handle that? There are days when this realization is breathlessly terrifying to me. Yet if we have decided to give up the narrative of victimhood, the only way to love, to be happy, is to let go of past and future, to put ourselves out there, and risk failing or falling short. Because everything we really want, everything worth living for, is on the other side of that fear.
Heavy stuff. And fortunately there is yoga. When we come to the mat we make a decision to show up for the here and now. To be present for whatever may arise, knowing that in every life troubles will come and troubles will go, rolling over us like waves in the sea and passing on. As we release our habitual attachment to fear, pain and our own rigid assumptions, our hands open wide. We trust that in one way or another all will be well. And we are ready to receive happiness.
Illustration by David Hoffrichter, from Shaman Tube