The happiness of the modern yogi [Essay]
Happiness is the birthright of every spirit-soul, at least according to the Sanskrit saying, Ananda-mayo bhyasat. That is good news we can all use. After all, many of us have experienced moments of happiness; yet an enduring, persistent kind of happiness has been largely elusive.
So where is this birthright of bliss of which the Vedas speak? An important clue lies hidden in a word we hear on almost a daily basis, “Yoga.” Not the yoga of stretchy-pretzel-limbed fame; but rather Yoga as the timeless knowledge of the Self. The word is a cryptic passage to a realm beyond the impermanence of material life. Yoga invites us to experience that which lies outside the boundaries of body and mind. Yoga is not a belief, or a fact. It is an impulse, a drive, a longing to connect with something real. Yoga is the exquisite pursuit of a life more real than the transient glamour and fleeting joys that punctuate the otherwise drab and anxious tone of material life.
The modern yogi’s journey of self-discovery begins when the appeal of material objects and objectives begins to pale. This can begin as disillusionment with our preconceived notions of life, or the creeping realization that even if we got everything on our wish list, we wouldn’t necessarily be happy. This idea emerges in most of the wisdom traditions. As our spirituality matures, it begins to emerge in our consciousness.
It can be a bittersweet realization that true happiness or what I prefer to call anxiety-free happiness (ananda in Sanskrit) is not to be found in material artifacts or accomplishments. It can be hard to let go of the deep-seeded belief that the right partner, the right bank account, the right environment will make us whole (even if we know intellectually that is not the case.) As André Gide once said, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” So, it is normal to have pangs of remorse as we slowly turn our backs on the sea of material longings that beckon and promise to fulfill us. In many ways it is a revolutionary thing to turn away from hopes we have harbored our whole lives.
Yoga, as I am describing it for the modern person, is the spirit of this revolution. This is a revolution against anxiety, dread, and fear. This is a revolution in pursuit of absolute truth, absolute happiness, and absolute freedoms. Yoga is a next-generation paradigm that portends the end of relative happiness. Yoga psychology champions a happiness that is not dependent on external factors. This type of happiness is a completely internal state that arises or disappears in spite of external factors and not because of them. A happiness based in the bliss-from-beyond is the result of turning toward the ephemeral and its loss is the result of turning away. When the modern yogi understands this it slowly becomes easier and easier to participate fully in life; while at the same time maintain an internal distance from it.
Consequently, the modern yogi becomes a citizen of two worlds – on the inside you identify with the journey of discovery, with the mystery of God, with your dharma which is described in certain Vedic texts as das-anu-das-anu-das… meaning, the servant of the servant of the servant of Spirit. On the outside you play the roles you are presented with, and you play them with feeling, and with commitment, but you don’t accept them as who you are because you are increasingly aware that you are the servant of the servant of Spirit. The modern yogi is one with and yet separate from the world at the same time.
This oneness and simultaneous difference is the beauty, the mystery and the philosophical underpinning of Yoga: the more you become free from the influence of matter, ego, dualism (distinguishing between pain and pleasure); the more you see the inherent spirit in all, the easier it will become to participate in the rituals and roles of daily life. The need for personal gratification will no longer be the driving force in your life, because you will have rediscovered your bliss. Instead you will participate in life for the sake of serving others. And even more you will want to help those around you rediscover their bliss. The modern yogi is filled with longing to help fellow yogis restart or continue on their individual journey of self-discovery.
Of course this may sound like so much lovely philosophy. What if we are not yet firmly on the path of the modern yogi? What if we feel a longing in our hearts for other things, alongside our desire to serve others? What if we want a loving wife, a compassionate husband, a house of our own, a good future for our kids? The beauty of the modern yogi path is that whether you are changing diapers, holding hands at sunset, paying bills online, or going it alone, living like a monk, it doesn’t matter. The modern yogi simply stands (or sits) in the place that they are, and uses that moment to connect to spirit. The modern yogi does this by paying attention; paying attention to breath, to sensation, to sound, and above all to the burgeoning sense that she or he is an observer.
As your capacity for paying attention expands it is likely you will experience more spiritual or ephemeral emotions: lightness, giddiness, buoyancy, etc… All this opens you up to a grander scheme. The trick is to avoid the pitfall of assuming too quickly that someone or something is orchestrating these experiences which you are beginning to observe. The caveat is on the “assuming too quickly.” For jumping too quickly to metaphysical conclusions runs the risk of becoming mired in sentimentality. It is worth it in the spiritual process to pace yourself, question everything, and don’t accept every experience as necessarily spiritual. It is of little value to become religiously sentimental. Sentimentality, like any superficial redressing, is the touchy-feely remapping of the false ego.
It is also easy, but equally disadvantageous, to try to just feel better by believing in you, or some newly conceived version of you. Many of the new age and recent self help movements simply push out the boundaries of self-esteem, resulting in an expansion of the false ego (the source of our misery and material misidentification.) The more authentic process is to have respect for the body and mind that surround you, while you work on discovering your true Self and whether or not someone is orchestrating all this.
The fact is something, or someone, probably is orchestrating the experience we call life on Earth. And Yoga is about exploring the mystery, the beauty, and the romance of making a connection with whomever it is that lies beyond the resoundingly transient realm of our senses. The modern yogi path is about doing that without dogma and ill-conceived ritual. Leaving behind the man-made means of escapism; the yogi instead looks for an internal way to touch the wings of hope, to trace out the path of spirit. The modern yogi may regulate and follow certain rules, but not for rule’s sake. Rather the rising spirit-star relies on mantra and practice. Mantras provide the fuel and the landscape. Yoga practice is the repetition of new spirit-affirming skills, replacing old, ego-entrenching acts.
All this requires a very new and real bravery; a courage born of compassion and kindness. Without this fearless determination to discover what lies on the unseen shore of one’s consciousness, the journey of self-discovery stalls in the ports of self-pity and complacency.
Perhaps the most difficult part of initiating this journey is being willing to surrender hope of finding fulfillment for our many material desires; desires that surround us and pervade every aspect of our experience. Desires overwhelm us because they spring from the soul. The soul’s desires are for spiritual romance and adventure. Fortunately the desires of the soul can be fulfilled. Unfortunately, while we are trapped in this material body, our desires turn from spiritual objectives to material objectives; and we find ourselves chasing mirage-like fantasies that never fully materialize (and if they do we live in anxiety knowing they won’t last). It won’t be easy to overcome the influence of the body, mind, and the material universe; but you can be confident that it is possible, and it is possible in this life time.
This world is real because it feels real. And it will go on feeling real for most of us for a very long time. But if we can wake up in the morning and make a decision: that no matter how real it feels, whatever happiness or distress we experience, we will perceive it with equal amusement and observation. We will observe ourselves the way a parent watches a child at the beach, sharing the triumph of the sand castle and the dismay of its erosion by the tide, but all the while knowing it is just a play date with the sea.