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A (Happy) Fork in the Road October 6, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

– Yogi Berra

“Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.”

– commentary for Happiness tip #2, quoted from the Psychology 1504 (“Positive Psychology”) course by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

Throughout Sukkot, I mention Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Six Tips for Happiness” and, on any given day, one of the tips really sticks out. For obvious reasons (as we’ll discuss tomorrow), I always highlight his final tip, “Express gratitude, whenever possible.” There is however, another little jewel, tucked in at the beginning, which is easy to gloss over and over look: Tip #2, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” To figure out what that even means, we have to go a little deeper.

Dr. Ben Shahar is the co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy (HAS), where you can get a certificate in “Happiness Studies.” At one time, he was a tenure-track professor at Harvard who taught psychology of leadership classes and a class that was referred to as “Happiness 101.” If you are not familiar with this work, let me preface today be saying that Dr. Ben-Shahar and his colleagues are scholars of positive psychology, which is defined as “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.” So, basically, it is the interdisciplinary existential science of having a “good life” – whatever that means to you at this moment.

Actually, that last part is a bit tricky, because we humans have a tendency to focus on things in a way that actually makes us unhappy.

“Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver, and he who loves a multitude without increase-this too is vanity.”

 – Kohelet – Ecclesiastes (5:9)

 “‘For Epicurus ataraxia was the only true happiness. And how do we achieve it? Not through Plato’s harmony of the soul nor Aristotle’s attainment of reason but simply by the elimination of worry or anxiety. If Epicurus were speaking to you at this moment, he would urge you to simplify life. Here’s how he might put it if he were standing here today….

 Lads, your needs are few, they are easily attained, and any necessary suffering can be easily tolerated. Don’t complicate your life with such trivial goals as riches and fame: they are the enemy of ataraxia. Fame, for example, consists of the opinions of others and requires that we must live our life as other wish. To achieve and maintain fame, we must like what others like and shun whatever it is that they shun. Hence, a life of fame or a life in politics? Flee from it. And wealth? Avoid it! It is a trap. The more we acquire the more we crave, and the deeper our sadness when our yearning is not satisfied. Lads, listen to me: If you crave happiness, do not waste your life struggling for that which you really do not need.’”

– the fictionalized Franciscus van den Enden speaking to his students in The Spinoza Problem: A Novel by Dr. Irvin D. Yalom

While scientists focus on what it takes to thrive and flourish, there is also a very definite awareness that people define happiness in different ways and, therefore, the way they approach finding happiness becomes different. Keep in mind that we are still looking at functional/not-afflicted behavior and dysfunctional/afflicted behavior. However, positive psychology emphasizes the functional and does not rigidly define “happiness” – even though the Happiness Studies Academy states that the way in which they define happiness is critical to their mission. It is also critical, as I inferred above, to whether or not we are happy – whatever that means to you in this moment.

For some people, happiness is an ecstatic kind of joy. For others, it is “just not being miserable.” Over the last few days I have mentioned that Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk, equates happiness to “not suffering” or being free of suffering. Then there is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (an October baby), who said:

“Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Since I am, all year long, dedicated to “a joyful practice,” every physical practice I lead includes elements of the Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Six Tips for Happiness.” It wasn’t my original intention to mirror the good doctor’s research. Instead, I was inspired by yoga sūtra 2.46 (“sthirasukham āsanam”), which is all about finding that balance between effort and relaxation (i.e., power without resistance). But, it just turns out that the six tips are things that really work and make sense (if you take a moment to go deeper). Some of the elements are, of course, very obvious: there’s always emphasis on the mind-body connection and there’s always an opportunity to express gratitude. However, what you may not always realize is how we keep coming back to that “intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

Throughout every practice, I combine things that feel good (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) with the meaning behind why we do what we do the way we do it. Granted, what feels good in my mind-body may not feel good in yours and vice versa, and what feels good today may not feel good tomorrow – which is why the meaning or purpose is so important. It gives each practitioner agency or stewardship over their own practice. So, sometimes I offer the specific anatomical or physiological meaning/purpose of a pose or sequence. Other times I offer the energetic, emotional, and/or spiritual significance of something we are doing.

Usually, the music speaks for itself, but I might highlight a lyric here or there, just in case you missed it. Then too there is the symbolism of the poses, the sequences, and/or – as I mention during Sukkot and other spiritual observations – the symbolism of rituals within various traditions. Finally, there are the stories (and the smiles), which are just another way to mix in an extra dose of pleasure and meaning.

“And it’s up to me to try and meet my fate with a smile”

– quoted from “Joyful” by X Ambassadors

Please join me today (Tuesday, October 6th) at 12 Noon or 7:15 PM for a virtual yoga practice on Zoom, where we will do what we do. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (Look for “Sukkot 2”)

Yoga Sūtra 2.18: prakāśkriyāsthitiśīlam bhūtendriyāmakam bhogāpavargārtham dŗśyam

– “The objective world (what is seen), consisted of a combination of elements and senses, and having a nature of illumination, activity, and stability, has two purposes: fulfillment and freedom.”

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