The quest for happiness is an inward one, which requires neither travel nor reach.
I live across from a church school playground. Every so often I am woken by the sound of children at play. The sounds of the playground have been the same for generations: screams, shouts and screeching laughter. I remember making those noises as a child, though to imagine doing so now feels odd. I am mature.
The childish feelings of electric joy, chilling fear and infernal anger pass equally swiftly for better or worse. However, save for some moods and individual situations, most children return to a default state of something akin to happiness.
Think back to those days. Most of us will remember that feeling. It’s a feeling that we sometimes seek to evoke in yoga. Happy Baby Pose (ananda balasana) is great for conjuring that feeling.
We call this feeling “bliss.”
We hear a lot of talk about reaching for bliss. Striving for bliss. Achieving bliss. Why is bliss so elusive? I mean, we all want to be blissful, right? But many of us have had that feeling that bliss is just too far out there. It’s like it’s unobtainable. Or, screw it, I just don’t feel like reaching today.
What if bliss didn’t have to feel like it was always across the river, in the next town or way over in the next country? What if bliss was an integral part of our design, or even—shall we say—our default mode of operation?
Ananda, the absence of suffering.
The Sanskrit word for “bliss” is ananda. The curious thing about this word is that, in the Sanskrit language, the prefix a- means the opposite or absence of. The more literal translation of ananda is “the absence (or opposite) of suffering.” This is my curiosity: why was suffering chosen as a descriptive word for a human condition and not bliss? Why did they specifically describe a person as “suffering or not suffering” versus “blissful or not blissful”?
As a lover of language, I have a theory. We are born in bliss (remember the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss”?). Most of us are fortunate enough to spend a significant portion of our early lives in bliss. Observe children at play and you know this to be true. The human default state is bliss. That is why there is no word in Sanskrit that directly means “bliss.”
Something happens roughly around the ages of seven to 12; most of us call it “growing up.” We stop laughing as much as we used to. We stop putting our fingers in the dirt—because it’s dirty. We stop finding everything fascinating. We think we know things. We grow cold and hard or hot and fiery. Then, many of us are told that if we want bliss, we have to reach for it.
Maybe it’s semantics, but I believe that it doesn’t take a grand reach to get to bliss. Everyone is capable of it. Bliss requires no travel; it isn’t some room down the hall for you to occupy, it’s your own room. But it gets cluttered up by certain things: cynicism, boredom, depression and desire, for instance.
I don’t believe we are ever separate from our bliss; rather, we bury it.
Imagine a mirror. When you take a shower in the morning, if you’re at all like I am, you do not touch that water until your bathroom can double as a sauna. By the time you’re done, the mirror is all fogged up so you can’t see your own face to shave or do your makeup, and when you wipe the mirror, sometimes it leaves smudges and watermarks.
Bliss is a clean mirror. Emotions and other vrittis (fluctuations of the mind) are the fog and smudges. If this is accurate, then bliss is never unreachable. It’s an integral part of us, as much so as our hands and feet. So rather than thinking stretching and leaning and building bridges will lead to bliss, like it’s some lingering star just out of reach, turning inward and asking oneself, “What covers up my bliss,” rather than, “What separates me from bliss,” may yield better results.
Remember that emotions are tools; at one point in our species’ history, it was our ancestors who narrowed their eyes, flexed their upper bodies and bared their teeth that got the food or killed the enemy. It was our ancestors who widened their eyes and gathered a lungful of breath when threatened that survived.
Our cynicism, our lust, yes, even our boredom and depression are tools to get us through life. But once we finish with our tools, we should put them away until we need them to serve us again. Instead, most of us leave our tools lying around, until our rooms become difficult to navigate (or, worse, you step on an old pain like a toy car—ouch!)
The question becomes, “How do I clean my mirror, so all that remains is bliss?”
I’m no expert on the subject, but first one must ask themselves if they are in bliss. If the answer is no, then one might begin to discern what fogs up their mirror.
Then the Three-Eyed God, through self-control, by sheer strength,
restrained his shaken senses and, wishing to find
some reason why his mind should have been so disturbed,
sent his sight flowing out in all the directions.
He saw Kama with his clenched fist
near his right eye, shoulders hunched
and left foot turned inward, ready for attack,
the lovely bow curved into a circle.
Everyone’s situation is different.
Here, the Three-Eyed God (Lord Shiva) becomes disturbed by emotion when the goddess Pavrati enters his grove during his meditation. By investigating, he discovers Kama (the god of love—think Eros/Cupid) hiding in the bushes, armed with “his arrow named Fascination that never fails” (III.66). This also illustrates that love—and even joy—can be distractions from bliss.
And if you want to know what Shiva does after finding the god of love hiding in the bushes, poised to strike him, you’ll have to track down a copy of Kumarasambhava by the poet Kalidasa.
Meditation, or any kind of self-reflection is a great place to start when looking for what might be burying bliss. Speaking to a trusted teacher, guru, or therapist is a great way to get a second opinion. They may be able to offer advice on how to clean one’s mirror. From there, situations branch off towards individual concerns.
Sometimes, just discovering that one is sad or angry can begin to undo suffering. Yoga (howsoever it manifests to the individual), cooking and the company of friends are powerful cleaning agents for dirty mirrors. Perhaps you have game night, or movie night, or go bowling. Perhaps you walk to a park or a playground, to be reminded how others live in bliss.
I should note here that a state of perpetual bliss is not and should not be one’s goal. Such is a life without fear, anger, and sadness, but also a life without risk, triumph and joy as well. The Buddha is (in)famously quoted as saying, “Life is suffering.” Not all suffering is bad. Remember that anger is not a wall to be broken down, nor sadness a cleft valley twixt happiness and oneself; emotions are tools to get through moments, particularly moments of suffering, but when the moment is done, we must be sure to put the tools away.
Bliss is not unobtainable by anyone. Some rooms are messier than others, some mirrors covered by things we won’t even begin to discuss; some messes require the aid of professional cleaners, some require only a rubbing of a paper towel. What matters is that the mirror is there, even if it is entirely covered by fog; bliss, ananda, the absence or opposite of suffering is a part of each of us. It is our default state, the state in which we were born, and the state to which we can always return.
Kevin Macku is a 20-something fledgeling yogi with a love of words. He is a trained actor who occasionally appears in local movies and on stage. His preferred methods of expression are based in movement: Suzuki’s Training for the Classical Actor, Viewpoints and Butoh to name a few, all of which benefit from the practice of yoga. In the midst of a rigorous physical practice, he discovered he was undergoing a spiritual transformation, and began to document the experience. These entries can be found at http://doafy.posterous.com/. Kevin himself can be reached at [email protected].
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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