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Happiness Is Possible
"It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it anywhere else."
— Agnes Repplier, American essayist
One day a man with tattoos and a motorcycle helmet walked into my yoga studio for the first time. He had practiced martial arts in the past, so the movements felt familiar to him in some ways, but the experience was much different. He felt as if, for the first time in his life, he was letting go rather than fighting.
He became a regular student at my studio. With very small morning classes, it was often just the two of us. During these private sessions, I learned that he was a police officer and that he had been on the force for only a few months when he was thrown into the wreckage of 9/11 to help with the rescue effort. It took several years for him to realize that he was struggling with PTSD as a result of that horrific day. He said that he and his fellow officers didn't talk about what had happened. They just went to the bar to forget about it. But something about yoga soothed him. It was just the right amount of effort and surrender. At the end of class, he could finally relax and let go.
A few years passed. The studio closed. He left the police force and moved away in search of the lost parts of himself. In California, he took a yoga teacher-training course, and when he came back to New York he decided to pursue yoga as a career. He became one of my first apprentices in the advanced teacher training. He also worked at the yoga studio where I started teaching after my own studio closed. There he met a woman at the front desk who rocked his world. They became inseparable and were soon engaged.
A few years later I had the great honor of marrying them. And my three-year-old son had the honor of sticking his fingers into their fourtier fondant cake before any of the guests had a chance to see it. Thank God the pastry chef was on duty and had time to smooth it out before the reception! Of course, the bride had seen this from her dressing room window, and when she didn't freak out, I knew she was good people and more of a yogi than I was.
After the wedding, life got busy for all of us. A year or so passed and I didn't hear from him. Then one day I saw him at a teachers' meeting. Afterwards, over tea, he said he'd been going through a rough time. He and his wife had been separated for a few months. Through therapy, he realized that he'd never really dealt with the pain he carried around about his father, who had been an abusive alcoholic and wasn't really in the picture when he was growing up.
He knew that in order to let go of that pain, he'd have to forgive his father, so he traveled to the other side of the world to meet him and forgive him. Not because what his father had done was okay but because holding on to the pain of it was causing him to suffer as much as his father and he was ready to be free.
Once he let go of the huge burden of resentment toward his father, he was able to heal and move forward. A few months after our talk, he announced that he would become a father to his own daughter. I'm certain he'll be an incredible father, not just because he's kind and loving but also because he knows what it's like to live in suffering and fear and he knows that in order to live in freedom and joy, we have to face ourselves, we have to face our problems, we have to forgive and we have to let go.
Not only did he change his whole life, but now as a yoga teacher he also changes the lives of many other people on a daily basis. This is the process of Total Transformation. This is the process of living a conscious life. This way of living isn't always easy, but it's always worth the effort. Over the course of almost twenty years, I've watched so many people, including myself, transform their lives through the practices in this book. I encourage you to open up to the possibility, whether you think you're broken beyond repair or you think your life is great and you don't need any help, that greater freedom and peace are always available to you. It is possible for everyone who chooses to pursue it, including you. You just have to open up, step in and let go.
"If it were not possible for you to be free from suffering, I would not teach you how." — The Buddha
The Buddha said, "Life is suffering." That doesn't seem like a very uplifting way for a spiritual teacher to begin his teachings, but upon close investigation, we discover that he was right. The suffering the Buddha refers to doesn't have to mean that someone is pulling our fingernails out with pliers or that we're dying of a terribly painful disease. It's simply the state of wanting things to be different from how they are. Sometimes it's very pronounced, like when we finally have a blow-up with a partner and all the rage comes out in words or physical violence. But most of the time it manifests more subtly, as that mental list of things we should be doing but don't have time for. It's the running commentary about all the stupid things we say when interacting with others. It manifests as negative energy toward people who appear to be different from us. However it appears, we all have it, and unless we're pursuing a consciousness, the suffering is most often simply being ignored or numbed by distractions, addictions and projection — as in, we project onto others the things that bother us about ourselves.
Though the Buddha said that life is suffering, he also promised that there's a way out, not once we get to heaven or in the next lifetime but in this lifetime. "If it were not possible for you to be free from suffering, I would not teach you how," he said. We can employ the many tools of mindful living to free ourselves from suffering.
Like with a caterpillar making the transition to a butterfly, the only real and lasting way out is through. The process involves shining a light on all the places we'd rather not look — the fear, the resentment, the guilt, the regrets — and turning these sources of suffering into sources of strength and wisdom that allow us to move through life with more equanimity and ease.
We Are Not What We Think
The Bible says our carnal nature, or flesh, is what causes us to suffer. The Buddha called it craving and aversion, and the Yoga Sutras call it delusion — believing that not only our happiness but also who we are is defined by what happens to us. If this were true, Jesus would have been absolutely miserable, Nelson Mandela wouldn't have lasted a year in prison and Mother Teresa would have thrown up her hands at the sight of India's impoverished, giving up before she even began. But she didn't.
All these iconic teachers persevered because they knew deep within themselves that this, too, would pass. Who we are is beyond anything that the world can throw at us. These teachers understood that the true cause of suffering isn't out there. It's in our own minds — identifying with the negativity of our thoughts. True freedom means freeing ourselves from that identification so we can connect to our divine eternal nature.
You're not there yet? Don't worry. You're not alone. The Yoga Sutras say that when the yogi's mind is still he can recognize his true and perfect nature, but at all other times he identifies with his thoughts, believing he is what he thinks. Therefore he suffers. Much of this suffering shows up in the form of attachment and aversion. When we're attached to something or someone, we don't want it to change and we don't want to lose it. Whether it's a delicious meal, a big event or a lover, everything that gives us pleasure will eventually change or end.
As a recovering food addict, I've observed this clearly through that perfect scoop of ice cream with hot fudge dripping down the sides, crushed hazelnuts and whipped cream on top. If I don't eat it because I want to save it, it will melt and I'll miss out on enjoying it. If I do eat it, it will eventually be gone and I'll mourn the loss. What to do? Eat it as quickly as possible and get another one. But then what? Another and another until the desire for pleasure that made us want the sundae has turned into a painful stomachache. Then we follow it up with guilt and self-loathing, punishing ourselves for being such gluttons. Eventually our stomachs shrink again, the slightest discomfort arises in our lives and the only thing we can think of to make us feel better is ... a hot fudge sundae. This is the cycle of suffering, or samsara.
This doesn't mean we can't have a hot fudge sundae. It means that to truly enjoy it, we have to be able to also truly let it go. As the poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem "In Blackwater Woods," "To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against our bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go." Most of us have never learned the art of letting go — letting go of a great day, our youth or a loved one who's dying. It feels unnatural and wrong. But in reality, it's the perfection of life. Without letting go, we can't embrace the new. According to estimates from the Population Reference Bureau, as of 2015, 108.2 billion people have been born on this planet. Taking away the 7.4 billion people who were alive at that time, that means 100.8 billion people have died. If none of them ever died, we'd all be in serious trouble. A friend recently shared this riddle: "What's the leading cause of death?" The answer is, birth. Everyone, except maybe Edward Cullen and his family, dies. It's part of the experience of being human. When my best friend died of cystic fibrosis, I thought nothing would ever fill the void in my heart. But nine months later my first child was born, and my heart again overflowed with unconditional love.
Animals, plants, relationships and businesses die, too, each time making space in the world for something new to be born. If we don't let go of what needs to die, we can't receive what needs to be born.
Besides not letting go, aversion also causes us to suffer. How often do we build up in our minds a negative expectation about someone or something that completely clouds the reality of the situation? We have one bad experience with someone wearing a blue shirt and then every time we see someone in a blue shirt we get agitated. Some of us have never even seen someone in a blue shirt and we still want to obliterate those who wear them because someone we know told us how awful people in blue shirts are. "They're liars and cheaters who can't be trusted," that person said. Rather than spending time with someone in a blue shirt to find out for ourselves if this is true, we just adopt the opinions of those who have come before us. This is the energy that creates the various forms of hatred we grapple with in our society.
Aversion is useful in that it teaches us not to step out into traffic or put our hands on the hot stove, but most often it keeps us trapped in a bubble that gets smaller and smaller every time we indulge it. My friend's son is one of the pickiest eaters I've ever met. At some point he tried a vegetable and didn't like the taste, so he decided not to eat that vegetable. As he continued to indulge his aversion, his diet grew more and more homogenized until he would eat nothing but meat, bread and cheese. Granted, many combinations of these three foods are available, but he's missing out on all the vitamins, nutrients, flavors and textures of the other food groups based on a negative experience that happened many years ago. When we let aversion take over, we miss out on the actual experience of the moment. We don't allow things to be as they are. We experience them only as they were.
When I first moved to New York, I had a strong aversion to rats. When I'd see one waddling over the rails in the subway tunnel, I'd feel as if I were going to vomit. One day as I walked toward the stairs to leave the station, I felt something soft and furry scuttle over my sandaled foot. I leaped into the air like someone with ants in her pants and screamed out an "Ahh!!" Because it was New York, no one really noticed, but I realized that I'd let an eight-inch rodent completely terrify me. I didn't want to live in fear, so the next time I saw one of those little guys on the rails, I decided to just watch it, to breathe and stop myself from reacting. Soon I was reminded of a college friend who had a pet rat named Tootles. Tootles was cute and friendly. (Tootles had probably been vaccinated.) I tried to extend the same kindness to the subway rat that I had extended to Tootles (without touching it, of course), and I realized that it wasn't as scary as I thought. I could actually relax and let the rat go about his business. I didn't need to exterminate him to exterminate my fear.
Everything Is Impermanent Except ...
If attachment and aversion are the root causes of our suffering, how do we let these patterns go in order to experience true joy and peace? We have to recognize that everything in this world is impermanent and that we can't control anything outside ourselves. We must also come into alignment with what is.
If you've ever truly loved a pet, you've experienced the law of impermanence on a deep level. My dog Rosie came to me unexpectedly. I was sitting in the old Baptist church where I spent most of my Sunday mornings as a child, this time to celebrate my grandparents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. My aunt brought in a tiny black puppy with brown eyebrows and set it in my grandpa's lap. "No!" he said. "I don't want another dog." I took her from his lap into my arms and fell instantly and deeply in love. Over the course of twelve years, I watched her grow from a puppy to an old woman.
As a puppy, she followed so close to my left heel when we walked that I would turn and think I'd lost her. As she grew into a teenager, she would bolt out the front door whenever it opened and I'd spend twenty minutes trying to corral her back inside. Later in her life, when I opened the door to go for a walk, she looked up at me as if to say, "Well, if we must."
When she developed congestive heart failure, I grappled with the fear of losing her. I couldn't imagine my life without her. For over a year, I watched her every move, wondering when the moment that her heart would give out would come. Everyone told me that she'd let me know when she was ready to go. I tried to listen to her closely, but all I could hear most of the time was my own resistance and fear. We had the hospice vet come to our home three times to put her down, and each time we sent her away.
One day, Rosie and I were sitting on the back steps in the afternoon sun listening to the birds chirping. As the breeze rustled her fur, we looked into each other's eyes.
It's okay, I could feel her say. I didn't hear it. I just felt it.
Tears streamed down my face and my shoulders dropped. I knew she was ready to go.
We sent her off with shamanic prayers and peanut butter in the very spot on the living room floor where she'd spent most of her later days. I lay down next to her and watched her spirit leave her body. One moment it was in and the next it was out. I knew in that instant that she hadn't disappeared — she'd just moved on. All that fear I'd had about her death dissolved. We were both at peace.
The essence of who we both are has not changed from that first day in the church and will not change for eternity. It's the only thing that doesn't change. It's our divinity. To recognize this helped me to let go of how it was when she was a cute little puppy and a healthy dog and to embrace how it is now that she's not there to greet me at the door or lick the yogurt container. I can always close my eyes and see her looking back at me, so sweetly, with pure unconditional love.
You Are the Only One You Can Control
Shunryu Suzuki writes in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. To ignore them is not good. That is the worst policy. Just watch them, without trying to control them.
As a parent, it's tempting to try to control everything our children do. What they eat, when they sleep, how they behave in public. It all feels like a reflection of who we are as parents and people. We feel judged if our children misbehave in public. We worry they'll starve if they don't eat their dinner. We want them to sleep through the night so that we aren't exhausted at work the next day. Parenting is a dance of control and surrender, a dance you can't practice in advance. You can only learn the steps as you go.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Total Transformation"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Flint.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Happiness Is Possible, 1,
Chapter 2 Reclaiming Our Roots and Releasing Old Wounds, 16,
Chapter 3 Shadows Can Be Seen Only in the Light, 46,
Chapter 4 Moving from Fearful to Fearless, 90,
Chapter 5 Expanding the Heart, 121,
Chapter 6 Expressing Our Truth, 154,
Chapter 7 Seeing Clearly Inside and Out, 185,
Chapter 8 Merging into Oneness, 211,
Chapter 9 Putting It All Together, 235,
About the Author, 245,