When you take on a spiritual practice of any sort, it's easy to quickly become very serious about it. Reverence is often depicted as a solemn-faced, bowed-head humility, and depending on your root belief system, may even be colored with a dash of suffering (just in case). The practices of yoga are inward-pointing ones, and when you look inside and get quiet, the first thing you’ll likely notice is how not quiet it is, and often the noise you begin to hear isn’t very kind. Yoga allows our shadowed parts to reveal themselves; this is a good thing. As Jung said, "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate".
These voices, deep-seated feelings, and belief structures need to be seen and reckoned with. But they can quickly start to feel quite heavy. They are dense and sticky places and often have tendrils that reach into our ancestral and cultural roots, making them even more challenging to contend with. Many of us are well conditioned to leave our bodies, numb-out through distractions or substances, or anything else we can do to avoid feeling pain. So when we first learn to actually let these parts of us have their moment - giving them our attention (and hopefully our compassion and love), it’s not an easy place to sit - it can often feel like those intense moments may not pass. (They will.)
This is why we need to learn a few ways to “lighten up”. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, and father of modern day positive neuroplasticity, speaks of our survival nature and how important it is that we are wired to notice and respond to threat. Our brains are biased to do this in order to keep us safe. The parts of our brain that are geared toward seeking pleasure and joy are secondary, and require focused attention in order to become a bigger part of our experience. How often do you have an enjoyable experience, and as soon as you start to relax a little more, smile a little more and let go a little more, that brain of yours starts feeding you “what ifs” and “watch outs”. Anyone who has meditated at all gets to see how quickly the spaciousness and bliss of a quiet mind gets thrown back into “thinking”. And that’s okay - it’s how we are built. Joy and peace take practice. We have access at all times to the full spectrum of human emotions, even when something is really strongly pulling us into intensity, such as grief or anger or worry.
When in the midst of a storm, this idea may or may not give us solace. There are a lot of motivational ideas that remind us to think positively, and even some that (probably inadvertently) shame us or blame us for having a negative experience because we “weren’t thinking positively enough”. At its most toxic, these concepts can lead to spiritual bypassing. They ask us to turn away from what is there, what is begging to be seen and nurtured, and what is subconsciously running our lives.
Mindfulness and yoga ask us to be present and to accept what is there. So be with those moments. But also know that even as the darkness seems to envelop you, peace and joy and love are still there, patiently waiting off to the side to be present with you. This is why we go into nature, or drop into the present moment, meditate, or stretch and breathe. It slows us down - slower than our worried, sad, or angry minds.
The yoga practices gently remind us that the picture is bigger, that we are bigger, lighter and brighter than we realize, and that we are safe in this very moment. The point is not to ignore or avoid the trauma or the pain. The key to healing is to completely surrender to it, as much as you feel safe to do, so that the discomfort has permission to move, express and transform. Let your body respond. Let your emotions respond. Allow sounds to come out. Cry, rage, collapse, and shake...and then move on. Zoom your attention out. Remember to shift your focus to the present moment experience of your body and breath. Look around at your current safe surroundings, and remind yourself that you survived.
The newest research is revealing that our brains don’t differentiate much between memories, visualizations, and thoughts from the past (or future) and our present experience. This is why trauma causes very real in-the-moment physiological reactions, even though the threat from the past is long gone. This is also why athletes have improved outcomes through the use of visualizations of their performances, or why visualizations help people in chronic pain return to functional tasks. The body responds to our mind.
Being joyful, having pleasure and softness and relaxed openness and peace is our true natural state - the one that we were born to experience when our safety mechanisms have a chance to cool down. But it takes practice and reminders to actually expand our capacity for joy. There’s a level of bravery to remain present and open and vulnerable enough to feel joyous. Where you focus your attention matters. There’s a common saying in the healing world: “Energy flows where attention goes.” So try to infuse your daily practice with little more joy.
If it’s easy for you to find joy and pleasure and happiness in this moment, go ahead and find it. Feel it in your body. Now try setting a timer so you can dedicate to staying in or continually returning to that feeling for a more sustained time than your body is used to feeling.
If it’s more challenging to feel joy right now, I have a couple of suggestions:
Just sit or lie on your back and do a couple of gentle stretches that feel really good. Tune into your luxurious, miraculous breath. Choose your favorite ones and really allow the movement to feel watery and luxurious and good. Take away any need for performance and tell the “shoulds” to sit to the side for few minutes. Let your breath wash through you like a gentle loving wave and really enjoy just a few minutes of tender movement.
Whichever techniques you choose to use, smile a little bit and summon the intention of feeling good and joyful and pleasurable and grateful as you do so - even if you have to fake it at first. Remember: the brain doesn’t know the difference. And be disciplined to stretch the capacity a little more than is comfortable, either through how much joy you allow in or for how long. Make feeling good devotional and important. For joy truly is a holy practice. It’s who you are.
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