Thoughts on Happiness
It is an odd way to start a post for my yoga blog but…
My musical hero Jimmy Buffett sings in his fantastic tune Growing Older but Not Up:
“May the winds of change blow over my head
I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”
He goes on to qualify:
“Now don’t get me wrong this is not a sad song
just events that I have happen to witness…”
In my view any one artist who can generate 39 albums must be happy doing what he’s doing!
The underlying idea for this post arises out of the ever growing feelings of fear around my own mortality and the increasing questions about how I can make my living moments count. I suppose most of my anxiety arises around making living moments count whilst simultaneously being inundated with the mundane tasks of householder living: cooking, cleaning, washing, taking out the trash, being a taxi service to the kids (I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here and most readers will be saying unsympathetically, “Cry me a river!”) The point is these are my living moments. The challenge lies in turning these moments into the gravy instead of allowing them to be the crappy brussel sprouts. Like Jimmy Buffett sings, I too want the opportunity to die while I’m living as opposed to living while I’m dead. I need a mental shift and the mental shift I believe needs to be toward thoughts about happiness and how to be happy. The shift needs to investigate what it is to be happy and discover if I can I be ok with not being happy. Which raises the question for me: does happiness even exist?
Tomorrow I’m teaching a yoga workshop and theme is happiness. I may be in trouble tomorrow because I don’t think I can deliver any answers. I want to avoid the temptation to tell my students, “Don’t worry, be happy!” But in essence the more I start to query the essence of happiness the more I start to think that good ole Bobby McFerrin wasn’t too far off the mark! In my 40 (odd) years of living I’m starting to realise that perhaps happiness is the absence of fear.
I own a great book called The Fear Book written by Cheri Huber who has been a teacher in the Zen tradition for over 30 years. She writes, “We rarely experience what we think of as fear. What we actually feel is fear of fear. Anxiety is the fear of fear – the dread of an experience I wont be able to stand” (1995:107). When I watch my two young children playing usually I can see that they are happy just doing whatever they are doing, completely absorbed in the moment, content with where and who they are. There’s been plenty written on how this childhood innocence gets tainted with life’s experiences and the cementing of ego that comes with growth and development and socialisation so I don’t feel I need to dwell on that here.
However I do think that stripping fear out of situations is nipping at the heels of happiness. In continuing to dig at the idea of whether or not happiness exists I asked myself what moments of happiness felt like. My first five answers were: peace, a feeling of being in the moment, contentment, ease and a feeling of lightness. My unlucky husband was also drilled on whether or not he thought happiness existed and I made him describe what moments of happiness felt like. He said, “elation, victory, a buzz, luxuriating in pleasure, appreciation, no pressure, , relief, satisfaction, peace.” I’ve emerged from some post-yoga relaxations (savasana) and felt ‘happiness’ or complete and utter peace just for a millisecond before my mind came rushing back in…but it is these moments, these feelings that make me think yes, happiness does exist. All I need to do is practice claiming my moment of happiness right now!
My first yoga teacher Babaji (Baba Hari Dass) says: “There is always fear in everything. But we have to face the fear, fight with the fear and finish it forever” (1981:25). He is truly the happiest person I know. At the age of 91 he smiles with the authenticity of a child – happy to be where he is, doing whatever it is he is doing. Babaji introduced me to his teachings and a meditation practice when I was in my 20s but it is only recently that I’ve started to see how mind clutter is dropping away with a regular meditation practice and things like fear are lessening their grip on me…with the exception of the fear of death which Babaji used to describe as the “base fear”.
Babaji’s teachings focus quite a bit on breath control (pranayama). There are several breathing exercises that he advises should be done before meditation and some of these breathing exercises involve breath retention which results in ultimately taking fewer breaths. Life can only move as fast as you can breathe. If you slow down your breath perhaps you can prolong your life. In the text The Tibetan Book of Yoga by Geshe Michael Roach there is a description of how thoughts are connected to breath. The analogy is given of the thoughts riding on the breath like a rider upon a horse and how if you can grab the reins of the runaway horse (the breath) and bring it to a gentle stop then the rider (the thoughts) on top of the horse comes to a stop too simply because they’re on top (2003:11).
I’ll finish with a bittersweet story. It’s a true story and it happened to me over the course of this last week. Last Friday I was walking my little girl Grace to school and we came upon what appeared to be a badly injured frog on the path. His back legs seemed to be mangled and no longer any use to him. Without hesitating I picked him up off the path and moved him into the fallen leaves where he was out of site and out of the way of anymore footfall. The weekend passed and Monday morning on the way to school Grace wanted to check the frog. He had turned on his back just slowly breathing. I thought, ‘oh dear he won’t be able to flip himself over with his damaged legs so I’ll at least turn him’. I turned him and we were on our way. Several hours later after collecting the kids we checked the frog. He looked great! He had dragged himself up onto a small branch and was looking spritely. The Tuesday morning check on the frog was more melancholy. He was once again on his back breathing slowly. Grace informed me without emotion, “mom, everything dies.” I told her she was right and wondered what I could do to help this frog survive. My husband and I had another one of our chats about the value of life and whether or not a vet could do anything for a small, wild amphibian. Wednesday morning the frog was there lying his back, just slowly breathing, his body completely still. Wednesday afternoon coming back from school I took some water from Grace’s school water bottle and put a few drops around his mouth. There was no indication from the frog as to whether or not this was appreciated. Thursday morning and I realised that this frog had now been dying for nearly a week. Grace and I went to check him and… he was gone. He’d vanished without a trace! This was the best outcome for me because now I could believe that the frog had either had a miraculous Old Testament style recovery or in his enlightened state of slowing his breath he’d simply shed the need for his body and his body had dissolved into light! How wonderful! I’d even found a quote by Master Great Nothing of Sung-Shan, Taoist Canon on Breathing in The Breathing Book to support this hypothesis: “No one has form without breath. Consequently, breath and form must be accomplished together. Isn't this evident?” (1996:47) I shared the news of the frog with my husband. He told me a cat probably ate it.
Life is short and long. Enjoy it. Don’t worry, be present.