If we are always in pursuit of happiness, how do we manage in the face of sadness, regret, loss or disappointment? What are we to do with these shadowed, uncomfortable and sometimes frightening emotions? It seems that our culture, and our yoga embedded within it, is held hostage to notions that happiness, passion, adventure and pleasure are to be pursued and celebrated as the highest values of human existence. And without doubt, most pyschotherapeutic, meditative, yogic and other transformative practices are intended, ultimately, to help us move from contraction to expansion, from darkness to light, from enslavement to freedom.
I myself have always been a strong advocate of the belief, now proven with scientific understanding of the workings of the brain, that we get to choose our thoughts. We now know that whatever groove of thought we allow ourselves to entertain we will have and experience the resulting essence of those thoughts in our lives. With intention, discipline, creativity and imagination we can change our thought patterns, thereby changing our responses, transforming our behavior and our lives.
And yet, do we miss something profound and important if we effort too forcefully and quickly in the direction of this metamorphosis? As the Buddhists remind us, our human nature is to grasp at pleasure and to push away from pain. They would suggest that it is our running away from what we perceive as unwelcome and frightening emotions which leads us down the path of suffering. The Buddhist teaching is that simply by touching into these scary places with curiosity and compassion we can learn to be more open and at ease. In this view then the question is not how do we manage in the face of pain but rather can we softly and gracefully be with it as it is.
It appears then we have these two conflicting approaches in dealing with the mechanisms of the human mind. One suggests that we can change our lives (and have greater joy, happiness, peace and ease) by imagining thoughts and behavior that support us in this direction. The other guides us to feel more deeply into what’s moving without trying to change it, thereby opening and empowering ourselves with a broader view.
I believe that something opens within us when we invite inquiry and curiosity regarding our patterns and our pain. I don’t want to shy away from the difficult feelings, but rather encourage myself toward a gentle and courageous observation of what’s there. I also ask myself, “What can I do now, today, to shift out of this stuck place?” Both are important approaches, and one doesn’t have to discount or devalue the other. We all know that some of us need to toughen up while others need to soften. Most of us need both, depending upon the context. The best we can do in any given day is seek out the place in the middle, holding these qualities in balance.
My intention is to continue to learn to soften into the difficult feelings, allowing what IS to pass through me with acceptance and loving-kindness. Concurrently, my intention is to set my course in the direction away from self-defeating, dis-ease provoking thoughts by carving out a new groove of thinking that supports and expands me. Love truly is stronger than fear. And as it happens, when we allow ourselves to touch it tenderly, it turns out that fear isn’t all that scary after all.