“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing. (136-137)”
~ Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras
I’m not a member of the positive thinking camp. I certainly don’t recommend wallowing in the depths and depressions, but without space for everything that arises we stifle parts of ourselves that are dear and precious. My darkest hours create beautiful art and prose.
The valleys in my life initiate ascension. My “worst” self gives me the nutrient rich compost in which I am able to grow a garden of awareness and contemplative practice. My teacher offers the invitation to “include and transcend” as we change, a phrase that continues to echo in my mind as I read and re-read this Sutra.
There is a nod of the head to the first noble truth: there is suffering.
I asked a dear and trusted friend the other day if I was undergoing an abnormal amount of upheaval or if I was simply sensitive. Four years ago, my parents’ marriage of more than 20 years ended while I was getting married and moving from Washington, D.C. to San Jose, California. Since then, I lost a mentor and friend while starting my own business, made the excruciating decision to leave California and moved (back) across the United States to rebuild my business and my life in a new city. Change is a constant… but seriously?
My friend kindly reminded me that this—my first Saturn return—is the time in our lives for change and discovery and also acknowledged that things have been particularly “upheaved” for me. That is where serenity has stepped in.
There is a gentle call to acceptance.
I love this sutra most especially because it never says “be happy when things suck” or “keep your chin up!”. It says, “Yes. Things are calamitous. Find acceptance.”
Serenity has been a challenge through the years of change. I often lose track of tranquility and opt instead for frantic attempts to change what is in a given moment. When I simply settle into the messiness of what is and choose to simply be, I find that those around me—my friends, family and clients—find hope and space in my willingness.
It’s ironic, really: when I am consumed with thinking that I am at my most intolerable because I am not happy or able to give, at least one person seeks me out to tell me that they appreciated the permission to be authentic and real. Serenity in those valleys and times of darkness is contagious, according to The Yoga Sutra. The sacred fire of acceptance will spread to those around you. What a precious gift to give those you love.
There is a reminder that after serenity comes a gentle smile.
Tara Brach, in many of her guided meditations offers a gentle smile in the mouth, eyes and heart. Not to cover over any sadness or calamity, but simply to acknowledge. My first experience with insight meditation was Tara’s recordings and I found smiling such a peaceful practice. Sometimes it helped me release the tension that was building in my chest and neck.
Other days it intensified feelings of anxiety because I was finally allowing myself to feel them. An authentic smile is soft and open and whether smiling to ourselves or to others, it can change our outlook rapidly. There is no need to force a grin or fake it. Simply take a moment to soften at the edges. I have made it a meditative experience to smile at people on the street, be they angry, focused, laughing, homeless or couture and regardless of how dark my valley is at that time, connecting to another human with a smile inevitably softens my chest and opens my heart.
“We should plague everyone with joy.”
This caught me off guard after a few lines on tranquility in the midst of trouble. But when I re-read it, I noticed that it does not say “Plague everyone with happiness.”. And thank kale for that. I can’t tell you how many positive thinkers have plagued me (literally) with their happiness.
In fact, there are very happy people that I feel the need to tell off in no uncertain terms because—and here might be the most important part of all this—happiness is a state, changeable and fleeting. Grasping and attaching to happiness can only end in disappointment and frustration.
But joy. Joy is the understanding and the willingness to act on the belief that all is well, no matter what.
And what if we all made it our job to plague the people around us with the sense of peace that flows, unhindered from acceptance?
Because joy begets happiness.
The Sutra ends with a state of happiness that slowly and mindfully is allowed to rise from the ashes of calamity by way of serenity and acceptance. Say hello to that happiness! Laugh and play and allow the moment to be exactly as it is, not demanding it to be a constant companion or pushing it away out of fear. (Sad, isn’t it, how many people don’t allow happiness because they are afraid of losing it?) There is an organic path from tragedy to happiness. We just have to be brave enough to walk the path.
Adopt radical acceptance.
Experience each moment of upheaval as if it were a precious milestone.
Spread joy like wildfire to those around you.
Live each happy moment to its fullest.
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Editorial Assistant: Yaisa Nio / Editor: Bryonie Wise