At a recent book group gathering, a question bubbled up in the course of our musings. It went like this: “Why is pain or sadness more “sticky” than joy or happiness?” Why do we so easily and sometimes so viscerally remember painful events and often the joy of an event is much harder to recall or relive?
This got me thinking about a very old story that Pema Chodron retells in her book “Awakening Loving Kindness”. A woman is being chased by tigers. She comes to a cliff and in an effort to attempt to out-wait the tigers, she climbs down a vine and hangs off the cliff. She looks below her- more tigers. Then she looks at the vine she is clinging to and sees a tiny mouse nibbling away at the vine. Uh oh. At that same moment she sees a mound of fresh, ripe strawberries; ready to eat. Tigers above, tigers below. Yet she simply reaches out, takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and “enjoys it thoroughly”.
In the midst of all our concerns, can we also find joy? The Dalai Llama, in the book “Art of Happiness” tells us that joy is always all around us. It is our work to cultivate the mind to move toward happiness and to remove the obstacles to happiness. Pleasure is fleeting, ephemeral… but happiness and true contentment is something we can learn to sustain. Instead of grasping for pleasure, we make more consistent choices that lead us toward samtosha, contentment.
In our physical practice we constantly sharpen our focus in order to align our body correctly. The mind easily identifies the poses that bring immediate pleasure. Yogi Eric Schiffman refers to the “full body yawn” of yoga- that’s pleasure. But as we practice we ultimately bump into the pose that is not so pleasant.
Sometimes we are asked to make a pretzel of our body and it feels like putting on a pair of panty hose that are 3 sizes too small! And have you ever noticed how we can get very serious as we set ourselves on the course of a round of Sun Breaths? We can look so grim! One of my teachers, Richard Vallella, often instructs us to “turn the corners of your mouth upward”. Of course, he is asking us to smile!
I love that. Why not include a smile as an alignment cue for an asana to remind ourselves to lighten up? Why not cultivate a little happiness while we practice and not take ourselves so seriously. We can choose to turn our experience toward something lighter by adjusting how we “push” by easing off a bit or using a prop and allowing for a little more fun. But is it possible to “find a strawberry” while we delve into Pigeon pose- that deep and challenging hip opener? If happiness is all around us, where is it then?
One of the best ways to move toward contentment in challenging poses is to use the breath. When we cultivate the ujjayi breath it can be used as a tool to encourage release in our tight spots, a calming place to anchor our focus when the body meets it’s greatest resistance. By cultivating the breath we can open ourselves to becoming more curious, receptive and friendly in our practice.
Off the mat we learn to practice contentment even in the midst of what seems unpleasant by looking for strawberries where ever we might find them. It’s so useful to just breathe and remember that a smile can cultivate just enough lightness to change our experience. And perhaps that same smile might change someone else’s experience at the same time.