Why We Can’t Get to Bliss by Reaching for It. ~ Kevin Macku

Via elephant journal
on Jan 15, 2013
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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?

Wheeeeee!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.

Te atreves...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.

(Kumarasambhava III.68-69)

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.

AsymmetryMeditation, 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.

KMTCK-4 WEBKevin 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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25 Responses to “Why We Can’t Get to Bliss by Reaching for It. ~ Kevin Macku”

  1. "I don’t believe we are ever separate from our bliss; rather, we bury it." I love this and will commit it to memory. It's so easy to forget that bliss isn't somewhere out there that we have to find. We just need to uncover it a bit sometimes. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    "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." Do you really mean what you say in the aforementioned second sentence? The first part I mostly agree with…the second sentence contradicts the first

  3. kmacku says:

    Hm. I suppose that isn't clear; what I mean by "such a life" is the life that's lived within a state of perpetual bliss, not the life where we bury bliss with emotions and other vrittis and must clean them off from time to time. That could be interpreted either way, and I apologize for the lack of clarity.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    "Such is a life without fear, anger, and sadness, but also a life without risk, triumph and joy as well." Looking at the sentence alone, bliss without the occurrance of either of the 6 possibilities you mention (fear, joy, etc.) would be enlightenment beyond the suffering you quote the Buddha mentioning. Why wouldn't we want that kind of bliss? If we are really talking about Bliss. But Buddha's bliss is a union of bliss and emptiness which cannot be achieved without heart felt love and compassion for all beings…Bodhicitta. So if what the Buddha says is true then attaining Bliss, in a buddhist sense, can be a delusional temporary bliss which can create more suffering or a bliss in union with emptiness dependent upon not attaining it for one's self only and going beyond suffering..

  5. kmacku says:

    Enlightenment is not a place one goes and stays. Even the Buddha returned from Enlightenment after staying there for a time. I feel that Bliss is the same way. I used two analogies in the piece: a clean mirror and a clean room. We take out things in our room all the time—it's why we have them there in the first place. We grab clothes to go outside. We use our computers to communicate. Oftentimes, things get cluttered up in our rooms, but they were likely things that were once useful. These things are emotions. Yes, I put positive things like risk and joy in that category as well.

    Now, we can argue that our rooms do not need that which makes clutter in the first place, and *that* is the True Bliss which is called Nirvana. But I am of the opinion (and perhaps I am wrong) that the people who need to be having that discussion or are on that path are not going to be on elephant journal reading this specific article. They'll be out in the wilderness, where this advice is not useful to them. And if you yourself are to that point, I bow to your feet, and encourage you to seek your advice elsewhere, for my readers have more steps to go.

    To answer your question of "why wouldn't we want that?" linguistically speaking, we do want that, if we take "want" as the older definition meaning "to lack." But if what you're actually asking is "why wouldn't we all desire that (level of) Bliss?" I (though again, I am not a sage, I can only speculate) would say that it is not ours to have yet. Again, if you or others have reached that level of dedication, then power to you and yours, I wish you health and wellness on your journey. But for the rest of us, there is this.

  6. meredithelise says:

    Thanks, KM!

    I wholeheartedly agree with you: Happiness isn't a place to travel to. Since I've become a grown-up, and spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever "just be happy," I've realized that happiness is a choice. To put it in your terms, you can choose to spend a lot of time squinting at the mirror and agonizing over why it isn't clean. Or, you can get to work. Happiness requires conscious effort to savor and seek out good things.

    I particularly like pieces like this because they force us to confront ourselves. I don't think you can be a more blissful person without devoting plenty of time to soul searching. So lemme do some more, and come back with a few more comments. 🙂

  7. […] we, we contain the tree. We contain, and are, all that is. There are no conditions to that oneness, that sameness. There is no time that we must pass through […]

  8. kmacku says:

    Thank you! I had a teacher (in acting school, not yoga) who said to us repeatedly, "Joy is a choice." I never understood what she meant, and how right she was, until recently, I suppose.

  9. Padma Kadag says:

    Kevin…how is it that the Buddha "came back fro enlightenement" when you yourself stated "Enlightenment is not a place one goes and stays" ? Would you ever consider that the Buddha "appeared" to be this or that?

  10. kmacku says:

    I am no Buddhist, but what I have read suggests that there is a difference between Enlightenment and Nirvana. What I describe is the default state of mankind, which I have styled "bliss." As I've read it, Buddha sat beneath the Tree of Enlightenment, became Enlightened (as in, entered into a state of Enlightenment) and from that, returned. There's a few romantic passages about how he stayed there for weeks, at times observing himself, at times observing the world, but eventually, he returned.

    Now, I am not the Buddha (to my awareness). Were I the Buddha, perhaps Enlightenment would be a place I could go. But as I am not, who am I to dictate where the Buddha is capable of going?

    Linguistically speaking, I would say that Enlightenment is *not* the default state of mankind, and therefore it's very well a place one could go to, as I would also say of samadhi. Having been neither, I cannot comment on either. What I meant by my first statement is simply what you repeated, which I'll word another way: Enlightenment, as with samadhi, is not a sustainable state.

    Does this make sense? Or shall I attempt to explain further? And again, I thank you for reading this article.

  11. […] unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, […]

  12. Jill Barth says:

    Thanks for this conversation.

  13. […] Why You Can’t Get to Bliss By Reaching For It. ~ Kevin Macku […]

  14. […] Why You Can’t Get to Bliss By Reaching For It. ~ Kevin Macku (elephantjournal.com) […]

  15. kmacku says:

    Thank you for reading!

  16. Julie says:

    Thank you for this post! I also love your recent blog post. I will enjoy reading more. Best to you.

  17. Kat says:

    Amen! Thank you for putting into words the truth for us all to digest and bring to life!

  18. […] as I can remember, and while yoga has not eliminated that feeling completely, it has allowed me a new and higher perspective on my thinking. As my practice deepened, I tried on the concept of believing in my own innate worthiness and […]

  19. @AhimsaYogi says:

    Love the idea behind this. Thanks for sharing. And for the most part, very true.
    A little point (because I'm nerdy): a- is not ALWAYS a negator when at the beginning of a word in Sanskrit. (adho, abhyasa, anurati, etc.) The word "nanda", without the a, ALSO means happiness, delight, joy.
    I just think it's important to recognize that neither Sanskrit nor Yoga philosophy presents the core of people as "suffering or not-suffering", but rather purely as the bliss experience.

  20. meredithelise says:

    As promised, I did some more thinking on this. I really liked that you pointed out that perpetual bliss isn’t the goal. “Not all suffering is bad.” I agree. I think the Greek philosophers believed that happiness came from leading a good, virtuous life—but that a good life still contains pain.

    But, traveling down this line of thought, I kept coming back to your idea that we’re “born” into bliss. I don’t know if I completely agree. Taking a strictly biological approach, what we call “happiness” is a chemical reaction in our brains. We’re driven, as a species, to do things to produce the feeling. What I’m saying is that, biologically, happiness is a reaction that comes from stimuli—chatting with a friend, going ice skating, eating a mind-blowing piece of cherry pie, whatever. So, that makes me wonder what our “natural state” is, if it isn’t something more neutral.

    But… maybe it doesn’t matter.

    I read an article once that presented happiness as a chicken-or-the-egg question. As in: Does the brain create happiness, or does it merely reflect a person’s natural state? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether humans are “naturally” happy / born into happiness, or whether it’s something that happens “to” us, or something we engineer. Regardless, being happy does require consciousness—to savor it, to seek out experiences to further it, to (as you wrote) uncover the things that cloud our mirrors and peel them away.

    What I do know for sure is that suffering is not our natural state. The human body can’t take it. Research has shown that happier people tend to be healthier, to heal from surgeries faster. Negative things (you mentioned boredom, cynicism, depression) can really pack a wallop. Ultimately, even if happiness isn’t our natural state, I agree with you that it shouldn’t be viewed as a distant, unreachable island. The power to influence it resides within us. It does take work, though. I think ol’ Aristotle would probably agree.

    Thanks again for being a thought-provoker. 🙂

  21. […] Our partners, like our family and friends, are mirrors, reflecting back to us the things we need most to examine. In my case, as perhaps in yours, I am still learning the art of self-love. As yogis, we have made a commitment to working towards self-realization for the sake of liberation (moksha) from suffering (samsara). In the process of learning to love ourselves more deeply, we begin to struggle less to hold tightly to others. When we find our true Self, through self-study, meditation and asana, we can feel the bliss that has been living inside us all this time. […]

  22. […] We may want to get to a place where everything is calm. We want to return to our state of childlike bliss. It isn’t healthy or beneficial to live in a perpetual state of arousal and upheaval, but to […]

  23. […] Unfortunately, humans cannot selectively numb out emotions entirely. If we run from the pain, anger, fear or sadness, we also lose contact with the joy, pleasure and bliss that comes from living fully. […]

  24. thanks for this. exactly where i am at.

  25. Carol Ann says:

    Delightful channel with some very thought provoking comments. My idea of Bliss is just bringing myself fully into the "moment", no thoughts of what has gone before or worrying about what's up the road, just engaging and participating and hopefully enjoying what I am doing. Simple things are Bliss to me – for example I work with a lovely woman called Ann who is recovering from cancer. She and I had music on in the shop the other day (we work in a book shop) – she just started to dance, and hum a little and I joined in, we had a "moment of bliss" it was wonderful to see the look on her face, she looked so happy and glad to be alive. She has suffered great personal pain and trauma yet she is back and fully engaging with life. That about sums up Bliss for me – having been touched by the flame but not consumed by the fire.